Carl Wilkens, activist and director of World Outside My Shoes, visited the Suffield community on December 16 to speak about his experience in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. His talk was sponsored by an endowed fund at Suffield supporting an annual talk on the topic of genocide.
In a compelling non-linear presentation Carl, captivated the faculty and students with stories about the Tutsis and the Hutus, two African groups that opposed each other despite their close bond. In 1994, the Hutus killed close to one million Tutsis because of senseless ethnic profiling, much like Germans executed six million Jews during the Holocaust in the early 1940s.
Carl and his wife Theresa moved to Zimbabwe right after college; he was a woodworker who did school development work. They raised three children and have fond memories of the sense of community they created with their neighbors. After a Tutsi family had been killed just a few houses down from the Wilkens' home in Rwanda, two women stood in front of Carl's home and protected them from the Hutu militants by telling them stories. They said, "You can't go in there. Their kids play with our kids."
Carl's book, I'm Not Leaving, tells the story of what it was like to remain as the only American in Rwanda after the genocide began; he sent his wife and children to Burundi for safety. Carl eventually helped save hundreds of people (including the children of Gisimba Orphanage) and remains in contact with many of the genocide survivors who are now living in the U.S. Carl says that if he is to be remembered for just one thing, he hopes it's the fact that he helped break down barriers. He told the Suffield community, "Our responsibility is our ability to respond. It's a basic human function."
Faculty member Beth Krasemann heard Carl present last year at the Facing History and Ourselves center in Brookline, Massachusetts, and encouraged him to visit Suffield. The fund supporting Carl's visit was established in memory of Barbara Cahn, mother of Headmaster Charlie Cahn. Hundreds of donors have contributed to the fund, which was initially established in 2006.