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Rwanda trip shows Mass. students meaning of community

Michelle Sedaca

Seventeen local high school students traveled halfway across the globe last month on an all-expenses-paid, three-week cultural exchange trip linking two Bay State schools with their counterparts in the African nation of Rwanda.

The students from TechBoston Academy, a pilot school in Dorchester, and Hudson High school in Hudson, Mass., and two teachers from each school made the trip, which began on July 1. They returned on July 24.

Funding for the exchange came through a grant awarded last November by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to the educational nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves.

The Brookline-based organization develops classroom curricula and other resources to help educators worldwide teach students about the consequences of hatred, bigotry and indifference. Through examining occurrences like the Holocaust and the genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia and Darfur, Facing History aims to empower students to take responsibility for their own actions and choices.

“The people were so friendly and loving — it felt like we knew them before,” said LaQueena Williams, a 17-year-old student at TechBoston. This was her first international trip.

“It opened my eyes that people are just so wonderful,” she said.

For fellow TechBoston student Alex Cruz, also 17, the trip was his first time visiting an African country. At first, he said, he was surprised at the Rwandan students’ English language skills.

“They were telling me words I didn’t even know,” he said, chuckling.

During the past year, Facing History staff led monthly meetings with Hudson High and TechBoston students to learn about Rwanda’s 1994 genocide and to prepare for the trip. Year two will build upon their experiences and culminate in a second cultural exchange — their Rwandan peers from College Sainte André and College Christ Roi will travel to the U.S. in March 2010.

The trip kicked off with a weeklong seminar, titled “Holocaust and Human Behavior” and taught by Facing History staff members, that examined the meaning of community. In the weeks that followed, the Massachusetts students visited Rwandan schools and universities, went on a safari, saw other attractions and participated in two community service projects — creating pottery to donate to a local community and helping build the foundation of a proposed youth center.

They also visited two genocide memorials, the Gisozi Genocide Memorial and the Murambi Genocide Memorial. During those site visits, the American students were partnered with Rwandan pupils, many of whom are orphans whose parents were killed in the genocide. The Murambi memorial displayed hundreds of bodies of Rwandans murdered during that time.

“As soon as I showed the first sign of emotion that I was actually sad, [my Rwandan partner] asked if I was OK,” Cruz recalled. “It shocked me, because after going through all that they they’ve been through, she wondered if I was OK.”

“It makes a different impact when you actually see [the bodies] — it’s real,” Williams said.

Rwanda has employed local trials called “gacaca” to foster reconciliation and healing. In these trials, the accused confess to their crimes. If their confession is considered genuine, they are pardoned and permitted to continue living in the community, side-by-side with victims.

When the Rwandan students complete their exchange next spring, the group will study the history of the American civil rights movement, according to Facing History staff.

Juan Castellanos, a program associate at Facing History, said that both the Rwandan and U.S. historical contexts provide substantive material for conversations about moral and ethical choices in one’s community.

“Within your context, you as an individual have a stake in whatever community you’re a part of,” Castellanos said. “The choices and decisions you make can make a difference for good or for bad — that is the common ground conversation we want to have.”

Another integral component of the exchange involves the students’ creation of digital stories that reflect on the theme of community. The Pearson Foundation’s Digital Media Alliance has provided technical assistance to the students as they start producing the videos they shot using smart phones, digital cameras and laptops.

Williams’ group wrote a script for their digital story entitled “Connect for Forgiveness,” which weaves together the narratives of a victim and perpetrator from the Rwandan genocide to illustrate a community’s ability to heal.

“[The script] shows that even though [Rwandans] don’t want to get rid of the fact [that] they had a genocide, they want to make a stronger community,” Williams said. “It made me realize that people can get over things that can be huge and make the world a better place.”

The examples of forgiveness and community the students witnessed in Rwanda have left an indelible impression on them, according to TechBoston history teacher Sandra Derstine.

“[Rwanda’s] sense of community is so strong — looking out for your neighbor and knowing the people around you,” said Derstine, who accompanied the students on the trip. “That idea of community, and understanding your stake in it, is definitely something that can be applied here.”

Both Williams and Cruz related examples of situations in which they would make different choices now that they’ve gone through the exchange. Cruz said he would help someone whom he saw struggling to carry a package, and Williams said she recognized her ability to lift someone’s mood, even by offering something as small as a smile.

“After this trip, I learned that you can become a better person and help the [other] person out. Teach them generosity,” Cruz said.

In addition to the educational elements of the exchange, the students also enjoyed playing soccer, singing and dancing together.

“Their favorite thing to do was hang out — they wanted to be kids together,” said Derstine.

Until they see one another again in the next phase of the exchange, the Massachusetts and Rwandan students are keeping in touch through the social networking site Facebook.

“I want to show them everything,” Williams said.