Bates students' Rwandan initiative named Project for Peace

A plan by Bates College students to help support a home for street children in Rwanda won a $10,000 award from the 100 Projects for Peace program sponsored by noted philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis.

Bates was one of 76 colleges and universities across the nation whose students submitted proposals to 100 Projects for Peace. The program was established with a $1 million donation from Davis, the mother of Shelby Davis, whose United World College Scholars Program spends more than $20 million annually bringing international students to American campuses, including Bates.

The Projects for Peace award will enable a group called Bates Students for Peace in Rwanda to assist a children’s home in a region hit especially hard by the 1994 genocide of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in that African nation.

The 10 Bates students in the group came together through “Documenting the Genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda,” a course taught by Assistant Professor of French Alexandre Dauge-Roth. Dauge-Roth had his students strike up correspondences with Rwandans as a way of learning about the genocide on a personal level.

“People in the class were very interested to know even more,” says Mireille Ikirezi, a Bates senior and genocide survivor from Kigali, Rwanda. “Actually learning about what happened in Rwanda 13 years ago, they decided, ‘Well, maybe we should do something about it, because we didn’t know at that time.’ ”

The award “was our chance to actually do something,” adds Catherine Zimmermann, a senior from Milton, Mass.

The group will focus on Gitagata Rehabilitation Center, a state facility for street children in Bugasera. Five members will spend several weeks at the facility this summer, and the members who are not graduating seniors will launch a series of activities at Bates next autumn to raise money for and awareness about Gitagata.

“As a Rwandese, I am humbly delighted to have this chance to give back to my community, since helping the needy, especially children, is something I want to do with the rest of my life,” says Ikirezi. “These children didn’t do anything to deserve such pain and such a destiny, and I absolutely believe it is our responsibility — people from all over the world — to come together to help.”

Along with Ikirezi and Zimmermann, students visiting Rwanda in June and July are Katharine Harmsworth-Morrissey, a junior from Brookline, Mass.; Emily Maistrellis, a junior from Annapolis, Md.; and Brooke Miller, a senior from Arlington, Va.

The other members of Bates Students for Peace in Rwanda are Kathryn Conkling, a sophomore from East Chatham, N.Y.; Anne Connell, a first-year student from Newburyport, Mass.; Dylan Morris, a senior from Bloomington, Minn.; Alicia Oas, a sophomore from Durham, N.C.; and Julia Resnick, a junior from Highland Park, Ill.

A key goal of the Bates visit is to establish a relationship with administrators and children at Gitagata. “Part of it will be seeing the realities of what we have read about and learned about in class,” Miller explains. “I think that’s an amazing part.”

The Bates group will also work with the children to produce craft items that can be sold at Bates to raise money for the facility, which can’t afford many basic needs. In addition, Ikirezi explains, the Bates students will perform a “photovoice” project at the facility, giving the children cameras as a means of self-expression.

“We’re going to ask them what the pictures mean. They’re going to tell their own story through the pictures,” says Ikirezi. Prints of the images may be exhibited at Bates and sold to raise money for Gitagata. “I think they’re going to say more than we can say.”

A Swiss native who started teaching at Bates in 2005, Dauge-Roth for four years has researched the personal, literary and film narratives created about Rwanda in the years since Hutu extremists massacred as many as a million Tutsis and moderate Hutus. In March, he convened an international conference at Bates and panels at other schools to examine the origins of the genocide and Rwanda’s subsequent efforts to rebuild its economic, social and political structures.

If the media spotlight has moved on from Rwanda to crises in Darfur and elsewhere, that diminishes neither the exigent needs that exist in Rwanda nor the lessons it holds for other countries. “The Darfur situation and the Rwandan one aren’t really that different,” says Ikirezi. “By learning from our mistakes in Rwanda, maybe we can try to do something to help in Darfur.”

100 Projects for Peace was made possible by an accomplished internationalist and philanthropist who is in her 100th year. Davis chose to celebrate her centennial birthday by committing $1 million for the peace program.

Undergraduates at the 76 American colleges and universities in the Davis United World College Scholars Program, based at Middlebury College, were invited to submit proposals for grassroots projects to be implemented this summer, with the 100 projects judged to be the most promising and practical to be funded at $10,000 each. For more about the program, visit the home page.