‘Grateful for every day’
Tori Roeck | Thursday, February 6, 2014
Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a three-part series discussing the Rutagengwa family’s search for God from the 1994 Rwandan genocide in light of their trip back to Rwanda in December.
Notre Dame freshman Fiona Rutagengwa is the child of genocide survivors.
Her parents, Jean Bosco Rutagengwa and Christine Rutagengwa, survived the 1994 Rwandan genocide and spent 40 fearful days in the Hotel des Mille Collines, better known as “Hotel Rwanda.”
Fiona Rutagengwa said the atrocities her parents faced and witnessed have motivated her to work to prevent genocide in the future.
“My parents went through a lot and they haven’t talked about it throughout my life,” she said. “But knowing about their past inspired me to learn more about it, and I’m doing political science because I want to learn about international studies and how to make peace accords.
“I feel like [my family background is] an important part of my life, and that’s basically why I’m here.”
Fiona Rutagengwa was born in Rwanda and moved to the United States when she was four years old because living conditions were unsafe for her family, she said.
“It’s kind of unbelievable, because I was born in Rwanda, and the way I saw it, it was the aftermath, and I’ve really been protected from the reality of the situation because all I remember was sunny days and banana trees everywhere,” she said.
“But my parents kept telling me about what happened, and I realized that the developmental aspects … are a little iffy over there. It’s unsafe. My father told me that the reason we came here was it wasn’t safe enough.”
Despite the dangers the Rutagengwas faced during and after the genocide, Fiona said her parents emphasized faith throughout their trials.
“You’d think it would take me away from God a little bit, but actually, seeing the way my parents dealt with it … they appreciated the fact that they survived and how they got out of the situation,” she said. “So that made their faith stronger, especially my mom.
“She thanks God every day and she stresses that it’s a blessing to be on this earth, and it’s made her a lot more religious, and that’s the way she raised our family — to be grateful for every day you have and the family that you have and all those people that support you. It’s really influenced the way she looks at the world and the way she raises us.”
Fiona Rutagengwa said her father has written a memoir about his personal search for God from the genocide, parts of which he once shared with her high school religion class.
“It was funny because that day I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know about him, like his experience, because it’s not every day that he talks about it,” she said. “I was there with my sister, and it was kind of eye-opening to see what he went through.”
Fiona Rutagengwa said her father emphasized a message similar to that of Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel — that we should “never again” make genocide a reality.
To better understand the meaning of Jean Bosco Rutagengwa’s message, theology professors Fr. Dan Groody and Fr. Virgil Elizondo and project coordinator for the Institute of Latino Studies Colleen Cross accompanied the couple to their home country in December.
Fiona Rutagengwa said Groody first introduced her to Notre Dame when he began working with her parents two years ago.
Even though she was unable to return to Rwanda with her family in December, Fiona Rutagengwa said her parents have begun to share more with her about their personal experiences, thus inspiring her to live out her father’s mission.
“My mom told me the story about my family and what they’ve been through,” she said. “Her sister has experienced a lot of things, and she told me about her other sister who died, and she was really maimed and everything, and that image hasn’t escaped my head for a long time.
“My mom has a lot of things hidden from me, but when she tells me things, it explains a lot about how my family is now and what the after effects are. I appreciate her telling me. It kind of gives me inspiration to do more and really carry out my father’s plan of having it never again be a reality.”