Like many American millennials, an 8th grade field trip first brought me into contact with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Unlike most of my peers, however -- then and now -- visiting the museum was not my first up-close and personal encounter with genocide. I've lived through it.
In 1994, when genocide started in Rwanda, I was 6 years old. I had no idea what death was and I was even less aware of mass genocide. My parents, thinking that the conflict would be short-lived, sent my older sister, Claire, age 15, and me to our grandparents' home in the Rwandan countryside; we never returned home. Claire and I escaped. For the following years we lived in seven countries across Africa, searching for our parents and a peaceful place to live, hiding and walking for days until we arrived in Burundi. Only after immigrating to the United States and settling in Chicago in 2001 did we learn that our parents had, in fact, survived and were living in Rwanda. I am always conscious of the hundreds of thousands of others who were not as fortunate.
From that field trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2004, I clearly remember two things: a visceral experience that made me feel really sick in my stomach, as I was transported back to concentration and death camps; and a cumulative realization that I could have been one of those people who were tortured to death and never found. These emotions forced me to remember my own experiences without fear and also prompted me to learn more about survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides; I wanted us to come together and to share our stories so that we can make sure that these kinds of killings do not continue.
Years later, in 2006, I was invited to the museum to speak with another Holocaust survivor; we held each other's hands and shared our stories. The museum space is filled with real voices from the events it commemorates.
It has been 20 years now since the museum first opened, and it has been nine years since I first walked through its doors. Since then I have been reunited with my parents and accepted a presidential appointment to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the museum.
The museum is a place of commemoration, filled with the voices of survivors. It is an educational, unique and valuable space for stories, for reflection and experience, and for sharing ideas of hope for humanity. Most importantly, it is a space for anyone touched by genocide to realize that they are not alone.
Many of us might feel removed from the Holocaust of 60 years ago and the Rwandan genocide of 19 years ago. But what is not so distant from us, and anyone can still feel, is that terrible hatred continues to surround us. We need to examine hatred on a global perspective because hatred is everywhere, and it does not matter who you are, you can be a victim of it anywhere and anytime.
The museum is one of those spaces where one can experience the effects of hatred and a lack of understanding of others. The museum also has several resources to educate and inspire future generations, many of which will be shared with the Chicago community when the museum's 20th anniversary national tour visits on June 9. With technology and communication tools, anyone can participate. I believe that as the museum approaches its 20th anniversary, it is necessary for all of us to recognize what hatred can do anywhere in the world. We must follow the museum's lead and educate others and ourselves. We cannot afford to lose any more people as a result of hatred.
Clemantine Wamariya is a student at Yale University and an advocate for human rights. She was appointed to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council by President Obama in 2011. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will host a free, family-friendly daylong event on Sunday, June 9, at the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers as part of its 20th anniversary National Tour. Find out more and register at ushmm.org/neveragain.
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