Man who survived Rwanda genocide speaks to islanders

A world without empathy is a dangerous one. Carl Wilkens learned that firsthand when he became the only American to stay in Rwanda after the genocide began in 1994.

His experience there has led him to do what he does today — workshops for adults and speaking at schools. Last week, Wilkens held workshops at both the Lopez Center and the Mullis Center, hoping to raise awareness of the importance of practicing empathy.

Wilkens first arrived in Rwanda with his family in 1990 and later became the head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency International in Rwanda. He traveled there to do development work and partnered with the people of Rwanda on different projects. The projects started out in education and health care, building schools, and creating operating clinics. The War started six months after he arrived, which spurred other work for him, taking on working with people chased out of their homes by war.

When the genocide first began Wilkens didn’t think it would last more than two weeks.

“By the three weak points, we can see there was no end in sight and that’s when we started to build relationships, actually with people who were committing leading out in the genocide, and in an effort to help the people who are suffering the most,” he said.

Wilkens began to take food and water and medicine to groups of orphans around the capital city in what he described to be horrific conditions. Militia groups slaughtered the Tutsi minority ethnic group, as well the Hutu and Twa.

“And yet, in the middle of all of that horror, you still saw these, you know, exceptional people who were protecting other people risking their lives for other people,” he said. “And you know, I always tell people that I think courage is contagious and you would see these people displaying incredible courage and it was, it was very, it was, it was infectious.”

Seeing that inspired Wilkens to figure out how to move forward after the genocide, seeing empathy as a crucial part of doing so. He eventually moved back to the U.S. and began working at a high school as a chaplain.

In 2004, a PBS documentary came out called Ghosts with Rwanda. Wilkens was interviewed for that documentary and since then, had gotten calls from schools and parents asking him to speak on his experience.

In 2008, another genocide began in Darfur, Sudan. This spurred Wilkens and his wife to commit to teaching in schools full time. They then started a nonprofit called, World Outside My Shoes. Since then, their commitment to raising genocide awareness has brought them to over 20 countries in the past 13 years.

In the past couple of years, the couple has been helping with the healing journey of Rwanda and putting the pieces back together. As the country now tries to be unified after the genocide, the importance of empathy is blatantly stark. Through empathy, they’re making strides towards building peace, he said.

“I think those lessons have a lot to teach the world. It’s so hard for somebody to wrap their mind around genocide that I started out with the idea that this thing genocide, comes from thinking that says my world would be better without you in it,” Wilkens said. “When I wrote that phrase down 16 years ago, I never imagined the division that we would grow to experience here in America, the idea my world would be better without you in it.”

To help fight division, Wilkens has developed what he has named a hope-based process.

That process consists of preparing oneself before engaging with others by looking at your habits of trust, cynicism, and biases.

“Instead of just seeing them as one thing, you know, for example, somebody who doesn’t want to get a vaccine or somebody who is really pushing vaccination strategies, instead of just seeing them as one thing, we’ll do our best to look for the good and see them as more than the one thing that divides us that bugs us about them,” Wilkens said.

Doing so allows people to engage with each other and find their commonalities, he said, to the point that people can find solutions rather than fight over problems.

Wilkens said that while he thinks it can be dangerous to compare the issues of genocide to division in the U.S because people are not experiencing the same horrors of Rwanda, it still can be helpful to put things in perspective and be used as a framework for a restorative mindset.

“Yet at the same time, I think the foundational principles of respect, empathy, and inclusion are still very crucial in any society, facing any kind of hardship or division,” Wilkens said.

Sometimes people are afraid to express empathy as they fear it can come off as supporting something they disagree with, Wilkens noted.

“Empathy is showing that we’re able to connect the dots between your story and my story and that your story is valuable,” he said.

It is courageous to have empathy and listen without an agenda, Wilkens said, adding that an absence of empathy leaves more room for individuals to act in a fear-based way, putting them at greater risk of manipulation.

“A lot of times in Rwanda, I wondered how people could hate each other, to the point of killing their neighbors. And I know this sounds really bizarre to people. When I say, I don’t think hate was the primary factor. I think it was fear,” he said. “And fear has this way of short-circuiting, our, our both our logic and our you know our critical thinking and our ability to apply our core values to our actions. When we move into fear. We’re leaving the most important thing behind, which is our frontal cortex.”

Talking to students about concepts like this, as he did on Lopez and San Juan, is always a fruitful conversation, Wilkens said, and it is usually the first time they have heard of the Rwanda genocide. One of the most important things he tells people to keep in mind during his workshops is that self-compassion is the first step towards developing stronger empathy.

By July of 1994, more than 800,000 people were murdered. While they may not be frequently reported on, Wilkens’ teaching of the Rwandan genocide serves as a reminder that they still can occur.

<em>Photo courtesy of Carl Wilkens </em>
Wilkens in Rwanda with his family 1990

Photo courtesy of Carl Wilkens Wilkens in Rwanda with his family 1990