Refugee brings her story of survival to Tahoe
The heart of Immaculee Ilibagiza’s story of survival began thousands of miles away from here, but she’ll share her story with the North Tahoe community to show that faith and forgiveness transcend distance.
Ilibagiza cheated death during the Rwandan genocide by hiding with seven other women in the cramped secret bathroom of a minister-friend. She lost her entire family in the brutal slaughter, but lived to tell her story.
“My hometown was very small also. I feel that I want to relate to people that love matters, caring for another person really matters,” Ilibagiza said in a phone interview.
“To share with people this story that is coming from so far away from America … it’s proof to me that [we’re all] the same people at heart,” she said in accented English.
After reading her incredible story, “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust,” Andy Hill of Truckee’s For Goodness Sake invited Ilibagiza to speak at the North Tahoe Community Conference Center in June.
“[For Goodness Sake Director Andy Hill] was so moved by the person that she is and what she had to say that he immediately thought, ‘She has to come to Lake Tahoe so many more people can see how wonderful and impactful her story is,'” said facilitator Susan Scheel of For Goodness Sake, a nonprofit center that offers the community a place to explore non-denominational spirituality.
Ilibagiza grew up in a small town in Rwanda and when she was home from college in 1994, her idyllic world and tight-knit family was destroyed as the country fell into bloody genocide.
Her family was brutally murdered as Ilibagiza hid in a secret bathroom with other Tutsi women for 91 days. As the hours slowly ticked by, Ilibagiza taught herself English, discovered the power of prayer and forged a relationship with God that would teach her the gift of forgiveness that she credits with her survival.
“Her message is so important for the world right now,” said Scheel. “With anything from the situation in Virginia to the guy who threatened UNR.”
Four years after the genocide, Ilibagiza went to work for the United Nations in New York City. She has since retired from that position. She is married with two children, tours the country speaking on her experience finding forgiveness, and returns to Rwanda each year to visit the orphanages.
“The highest point in my life is when I’m speaking to the public … it makes me feel good that I connect to people,” she said. “If we learn from the heart to respect another person and have that love for each other, we won’t have such worry in the world.”
Even though few Tahoe-Truckee residents can relate to the horrors of being held captive during a bloodbath in their hometown, Scheel said Ilibagiza’s story has a message for everyone.
“It makes me feel, for myself, that if somebody does something to you … you can look to Immaculee and see her as an example of so much pure love and true forgiveness that it can touch anybody’s situation … There can be forgiveness and love, and that’s what her story is all about,” Scheel said.
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