Many of the Templeton High School students who assembled last week to listen to Carl Wilkens weren’t yet born, or were learning to walk when he made a choice that could have cost him his life.
But that didn’t stop the Spokane, Wash., man from connecting with the teens while telling his story of survival during the Rwandan genocide which claimed the lives of 800,000 people.
In 1994, Wilkens was living in Kigali, the capital city, as a humanitarian aid worker with the Adventist Church when the killings broke out. He stayed behind after sending his wife, Teresa, and three young children — Mindy, Lisa and Shaun — to safety in Burundi and then, Nairobi, Kenya.
This was despite the urging of family, friends, the U.S. government and his church to flee, and despite the massacre of Tutsi neighbors who, just before their deaths, were forced to pitch their children over the fence to the safety of an orphanage.
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He couldn’t leave when the Rwandans who had been part of the family in their Kigali home (two of them Tutsi) were marked for death. He couldn’t bear the thought of not standing up when others had done so for his family (in one instance, two women vouched for how much he had helped the community, thus saving them from an attack). He couldn’t leave when so many children were left hungry and desperate in the streets.
Wilkens braved sniper fire, mortars and negotiated with gun-toting killers to bring water and food to starving children, and to save the lives of hundreds of people. Not knowing whether he would survive, Wilkens made cassette tapes of his experiences so that anyone who found them would understand why he felt compelled to act when the world, including the United States, looked away.
A decade later, a PBS Frontline documentary has been produced. It is called “Ghosts of Rwanda,” and includes some of Wilkens’ experiences.
Today, Wilkens and his wife are not only raising awareness about what happened in Rwanda but educating the public about the genocide in Darfur, Sudan, through their nonprofit, World Outside My Shoes.
Jordan Hattar, a 17-year-old Templeton High School senior, invited the Wilkens to campus on Thursday. Hattar is raising money for a trip in June to Sudan, where he will teach English in the village of Malek in the southern part of the country.
The Wilkens’ latest project, Pedaling 2 Peace, is a cross-country bicycling tour, which the couple launched in September 2009. Their goal was to leave Washington, bike through California (their daughters live in Riverside and an aunt, Evelyn Talmage, lives in San Luis Obispo), and then finish their trip in Washington, D.C. in June.
They aren’t sure if they will make it the entire way. But they are making the most of where they have been so far, teaching students that we all become stronger when we take the time to understand that we have more in common than we think.
“We have to challenge our ways of thinking and preconceived ideas,” Wilkens said.
“We can be intentional about the way we live our lives,” he added.
“We think a person is a real jerk because we don’t know them. But we can live our lives trying to understand their story.”
More lives may have been saved during the genocide if people had the courage and compassion to say to the killers that slaughtering their fellow Rwandans was unacceptable.
“Activism is not just shouting or fundraising,’’ he said. “It’s about building relationships. They (relationships) can stop a genocide or change a whole culture on a high school campus.” To find out more, visit Pedaling2Peace.org. or WorldOutsideMyShoes.org.