Genocide Survivor Builds Global Bridges Using Art & Peacemaking

Dec 15, 2016

From April to July of 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority in the east-central African nation of Rwanda murdered as many as 800,000 people, mostly of the Tutsi minority. Started by extreme Hutu nationalists in the capital of Kigali, the genocide spread throughout the country – resulting in death, displacement and distrust that would last long after the summer of 1994.

"After killing a million people in only 100 days, the country was in ashes, everyone was in pain," says Dydine Umunyana.

Umunyana was only four years old when the genocide started. She spent years avoiding death and running throughout the country with what family she had left. For most of her childhood she was deeply angry about what she and her family went through and the struggles they continued to face.

However, after visiting the genocide memorial for the first time when she was 18 years old, Umunyana came to realize that kids like her were all victims of the genocide – whether Hutu or Tutsi.

"It wasn't long before I realized that I was wrong. I was wrong blaming everyone for my own misery," she explains. "There were so many other children out there who were living a worse life than I did - children that lost their parents or parts of their bodies. And that made me realize that least I am alive and I should take my life into my own hands."

Umunyana changed her outlook and started work that would lead her to becoming a Global Peace Ambassador and educating students around the world about tolerance and peacemaking.

She also wrote a book about her life during and immediately follow the genocide called Embracing Survival.

Thursday evening, her work as a global mentor for the local organization Arts@Large’s Serve2Unite peacemaking program brings her to Milwaukee to meet with local students in person for her book launch. Students from Washington High School of Information Technology will be present - they made a denim mural of Umunyana, which is the cover of her book.

Washington High School students work on the denim mural that Dydine Umunyana would discover and choose for her book cover.
Credit Courtesy of Arts@Large

"The arts is a way for our students to connect with each other, to express themselves and to also kind of weave the service learning and the global mentor component together," says Arno Michaelis of Serve2Unite.

Michaelis himself is a former white supremacist who now works with students in Milwaukee in service learning, global mentorship and bringing more supplemental arts programs into schools through Arts@Large.

"It's a really powerful thing for a young person to connect with someone from the other side of our planet and to hear about what they've gone through, to hear about their struggle, to learn about the differences that are there between our societies and communities, but more importantly learn about the similarities that there are," he adds.

For Michaelis and Umunyana, teaching children about both of their stories as living examples of change is the perfect way to build a future generation of peacemakers.

"That's the perfect way to be able to educate these kids. They want to learn and then they connect to that story and then connect to you as an individual, and later on in the future they will really be able to connect to any human being," says Umunyana. "If anything is happening around the world, they will stand up."