“You will be proud I’m a powerful woman” – Grace Umutesi
Today is the first observance of the International Day of Commemoration and Dignity of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide and of the Prevention of this Crime. This year the UN instituted the international day of commemoration “to remember the victims of the “crime of crimes” and to call for action against the rise of hostility, xenophobia and intolerance across the world.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon shared a message today calling on the global community to “recognize the need to work together more concertedly to protect individuals from gross human rights violations and uphold our common humanity.”
UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, shared that the observance is “is about the past, and also about the future.” And that, “This day represents both memory and action – memory as a step towards action.”
Today is a day to stop and remember the things that have happened and the things that never should have happened. It is also a day, as Dieng said, to look to the future. We believe the best way to do that is to look to the next generation, to invest in the children who will ensure that history does not forget and does not repeat itself. And to celebrate those brave individuals who are already doing this work.
One of those people is Grace. We introduced you to Grace, now a young woman, at Alumni Honors earlier this year. Today seems a fitting time to revisit her story.
Grace was one of almost 100,000 children orphaned in the horrific 1994 genocide that claimed 1 million Rwandan lives. Just two days old when the genocide began, it’s incredible that Grace survived. But that was only the beginning of Grace’s journey. Her only surviving family was her aunt, who took Grace in and cared for her. For many years, the two were living on less than a dollar a day. The genocide robbed Grace of her family and robbed most of the country of its legal and economic infrastructure, as well as its dignity. By any stretch of the imagination, no one would have predicted that someday Grace would be a strong, empowered young woman studying to become a doctor and giving back to her own community.
No one, that is, but Jessica Markowitz.
We first honored Jessica for her work through Richard’s Rwanda IMPUHWE in 2009 with a World of Children Youth Award. We honored her again this year with a 2015 Alumni Award. Starting in 2006, Jessica began raising money to fund education for Grace and other girls like her. Today, that first class of girls is on track to graduate.
To continue to support these young women post-graduation, Richard’s Rwanda IMPUHWE is developing a grants program to help former students pursue further education, participate in internships that will help them develop marketable skills, and match them with mentors who will help them succeed in their first few years after school.
The incredible change Jessica and those at RRI have seen in the girls they’ve funded in some sense mirrors the incredible recovery of their country. Over the last 21 years, Rwandans have done much to recover from and move beyond the genocide. But an integral part of their moving forward has always been to never forget. Girls like Grace recognize that their lives have been hard. They look back and see they’ve come a long way. They’ve had some help from people like Jessica and everyone at RRI but mostly, they’ve found their strength, and their future, within themselves.
Jessica remembers, “Once I taught a women’s empowerment class asking the girls to declare, “I am powerful, strong, and a leader.” Many of the girls were hesitant but now each girl proudly tells me they are “powerful, strong and a leader.”
Grace is proud of her strength and continues to move to a better tomorrow. Not just for herself but for humanity. As she once told Jessica, “You will be proud I’m a powerful woman. And I’m going to help you change the world.”
Today, we honor Grace and Jessica and remember the victims of the crime of genocide in Rwanda and other parts of the world. Today, we commit to remembrance and to action. We hope you will too.