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A Test of Love

Immaculée Inspires Us with Her Story

By Lisa Burwell | Photography by Gerald Burwell

The 2009 Starfish Charity Gala benefitting Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida was held at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa on Saturday, October 24 and featured guest speaker Immaculée Ilibagiza. She addressed over six hundred attendees who enthusiastically waited to hear her speak as they dined with family and friends. It was remarkable to see so many people attending an event that benefitted the needs of our area’s most suffering children and families from all faiths and walks of life.

Immaculée is the New York Times bestselling author of Left to Tell, a riveting account of surviving the Rwandan genocide and of her unshakable belief in the power of prayer, love, and forgiveness. She is an international speaker who has appeared on CNN, EWTN, and The Oprah Winfrey Show, as well as featured in the New York Times and USA Today. She has honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Notre Dame and St. John’s University, and in 2007 was awarded The Mahatma Ghandi International Award for Reconciliation and Peace.

Immaculée granted private interviews with members of the press the morning of the event at the Hilton Sandestin. Surrounded by security guards, we were ushered into a conference room. Heavy with worry and anxiety that particular morning due to the economy and life’s daily pressures, a change in my heart occurred almost immediately upon meeting her. This statuesque beauty who had experienced unspeakable horrors warmly greeted us with a welcoming smile and a sweetness that melted away my cares. My problems were dwarfed.

immaculee ilibagiza starfish charity gala sandestin florida
Immaculée Ilibagiza

As we continued the interview that felt more like a conversation between friends, a sense of gratitude for all we have in our country—so many blessings—overwhelmed me. She said her story is a story of love. “God is smart and we are all here to love one another because it is the only way we can survive.”

“If you trust God and have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can really move mountains,” said Immaculée. She added that we all face challenges, but we must block out fear as there is always something to be grateful for.

Immaculée lived an idyllic life as a child in Rwanda—a place that she called paradise. Rwanda enjoys beautiful weather, lush green valleys, and rolling hills, and her house was located on a hilltop overlooking Lake Kivu. Her parents were strong and she and her brothers were surrounded with love and security. They were school teachers, devout Catholics who were extremely active in their community and who believed that the only defense against poverty and hunger was a good education. She recalled that she had a happy life where people cared and respected one another.

What happened? Gradually, the young Immaculée became aware of discrimination and growing tribal racism between the Tutsis and Hutus. Her family were Tutsis, but she had no idea what that meant.

There were at that time three tribes in Rwanda, a Hutu majority, a Tutsis minority and a small number of Twa. She wrote that Colonialists—first German, then Belgian—turned Rwanda into a discriminatory, race-based class system by introducing a racial identity card. In the ensuing years, there was a deepening rift between the tribes which resulted in many revolts and massacres, one in 1959 and the other in 1973. In Immaculée’s world, members of both tribes were friends and neighbors who worshipped together, spoke the same language, and intermarried. In 1990, war broke out: accusing the Tutsis of trying to take over their government, the Hutus began a campaign to kill all Tutsis. A youth movement called INTERAHAMME, which means “those who attack together,” was trained to kill.

immaculee ilibagiza starfish charity gala sandestin florida

In 1994, the war heightened to a frenzy when over a three-month period, gangs of Hutus, some of whom were Immaculée’s former schoolmates and neighbors, incredulously slaughtered over one million ethnic Tutsis. With the exception of a brother that was out of the country for school, her entire beloved family was slain. Throughout the three-month period of brutality, Immaculée silently huddled together with seven other Tutsi women for ninety-one days in a cramped three-foot by four-foot bathroom in the house of a sympathetic pastor. There, she prayed every waking moment as she and the other women were being sought out by murderous gangs. It seemed that at any moment, the door to their secret hideaway would be flung open and they would be discovered. Though the worst seemed inevitable, miraculously, it never happened. Immaculée believes that God prepares the way, and through Him all things are possible.

While in hiding, Immaculée was divinely inspired to learn English and asked the pastor for an English dictionary. How she had the wherewithal to cast fear aside while using this time to embark on learning a new language shows the strength of her character and her resolve to keep living. “God plants us on the path, and it is up to us to do the walking,” said Immaculée. This blind faith later helped her secure a position with the United Nations (U.N.) in Rwanda shortly after the conflict de-escalated.

immaculee ilibagiza starfish charity gala sandestin florida
immaculee ilibagiza starfish charity gala sandestin florida

Self-help gurus and some religions believe in the power of “visualization.” In Immaculee’s case, the basis for her visualization is a childlike faith that a supreme being is watching over her and caring about her. While in hiding, Immaculée learned to lean on God and her faith in Him, and now, in every detail of her life—her freedom, her husband, and her U.N. position—she proceeds with blind faith as a guiding light. “I envisioned it, I dreamed it, I prayed for it, and now I had it,” said Immaculée.

This is a story of unimaginable terror, evil, bravery, love, forgiveness, and belief in God. She forgave the man who was responsible for the murder of her family because she did not want to perpetuate the hatred. It is the old story of ethnic hatred such as the genocide in Nazi Germany, the hatred between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland, Serbians and Croatians, Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims—and neighbor hating neighbor.

What happened in Rwanda happened to us all—humanity was wounded by the genocide. The love of a single heart can make a world of difference. I believe we can heal Rwanda, and our world, by healing one heart at a time.

immaculee ilibagiza starfish charity gala sandestin florida
From Left to Right: Lucille Carollo, Kirstie Carollo, Brenda Romair, Wanda Currey, Marissa Fortenberry, Bridgid McIntyre, Erin Tusa, and Tina Sims
immaculee ilibagiza starfish charity gala sandestin florida
Barbara Grimaldi and Lisa Burwell

The Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida should be commended for sponsoring this event and letting us have a glimpse of Immaculée’s story right here in our own backyard. According to Carolyn Ketchel, LCSW, regional director of Catholic Charities of Northwest Florida, “the event was a successful fundraiser that allowed us to care for over 20,000 people by providing food during the holidays and assisting with Emergency Assistance for 2010.

To learn more about Immaculée’s charitable fund that benefits Rwandan orphans, please visit www.lefttotell.com.

— V —

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