MEDFORD, Mass.—The message these days is genocide recognition, and it’s being conveyed loud and clear across the campus of Tufts University.
Some 250 students piled their way into the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy on Feb. 24 to hear five panelists speak out emotionally against human rights violations, calling for peace and understanding among ethnic nations throughout the world.
“Through their stories and real-life experiences, we hope to show a continuity of themes on how genocide shaped our lives and our generations,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Summit, executive director of Tufts Hillel, who moderated the program.
“We must stand up and raise a moral voice,” he added. “Education is a powerful tool and genocide education is a viable force on our campus.”
Represented were: Khatchig Mouradian (Armenia), editor of the Armenian Weekly and a doctoral student in Holocaust and genocide studies at Clark University; Maurice (Ries) Vanderpol (Holocaust), a noted psychiatrist; Sayon Soeun (Cambodia), executive director of Light of Cambodian Children, Lowell; Jasmina Cesic (Bosnia), real-estate businesswoman and author; and Eugenie Mukeshimana (Rwanda), who founded Genocide Survivors Support Network.
The event was sponsored by Tufts Against Genocide, Tufts Hillel, Tufts Collaborative on Africa, and Tufts STAND. It was made possible through funding by the Cummings Foundation, a $2 million endowment which subsidizes educational trips, art exhibits, film screenings, lectures, and studies geared toward genocide prevention.
Mouradian was first to the podium, recalling his experiences growing up in Lebanon and hearing stories of genocide survival among his own family. He touched upon the Armenian Genocide of 1915-23, the denial of such an atrocity, and reconciliation.
Of the five panelists, he was the only non-survivor, given his age.
“Genocides are part of our reality,” he pointed out. “Imagine generations from now when this continuity ceases to exist.” If we fail to see the connection, chances of other genocides taking place will only repeat themselves, he said.
Mouradian urged students to assume the role of being an activist and encouraged the fight against human rights violations.
“The importance of facing the past is conducive toward life’s experiences today,” he added. “In more ways than one, the Armenian Genocide has shaped my life and informed my work.”
Mouradian pointed to 2015 as the centennial observance and called for justice and recognition for Armenians.
“Other nations have received closure, but not the Armenians,” he concluded.
In between his role as editor of the Weekly, Mouradian is a doctoral student at Clark University in Worcester and travels the world giving talks on his heritage and history. His dissertation focuses on the destruction of the Armenians in the Syrian Desert. More recently, he spoke on justice and reparations at an Armenian Genocide conference in Ankara, Turkey.
Just shy of turning 90, Vanderpol doesn’t let his age interfere with his ethnic heritage, recalling the horrific life he led as a middle-class Jewish child growing up in Holland. When the Nazis invaded Amsterdam, he was left to weather the storm of persecution and deportation while hiding for two years.
“A potato was worth more than gold,” he admitted. “A potato could extend your life. Hitler was drinking champagne in Berlin and people were freezing to death here. We fought the misery by remaining positive and maintaining a sense of levity.”
How did Vanderpol live with the turmoil he had faced?
“It detoxifies in you,” he said. “You go on to appreciate the good life you’re now living in America.”
At the tender age of nine, Soeun was holding an assault rifle and taught to kill his fellow Cambodians, including members of his own family.
“It was either kill or be killed,” he confessed. “The government told me my parents and siblings were my enemy. Love was forbidden. My soul belonged to the regime and I grew up thinking immunity was common practice.”
Today, Soeun is nothing short of a Cambodian activist as he sets out to educate students, a role he’s played over two decades as a former member of the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee.
Cesic lost her husband to a mortar shell and had an arm blown away during Bosnia’s upheaval in the 1990’s when over 200,000 Muslims were killed or starved to death in concentration camps.
She found her way to America, secured a business degree, opened a small real-estate office, goes on public speaking tours, and has authored a book on her experiences.
“Some of us refused to be killed by the Serbs,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “Only last year did the Serbs apologize for their crimes. Such an apology will open the door for future generations.”
Mukeshimana was eight months pregnant when the genocide broke out in Rwanda in 1994—a genocide that resulted in the loss of a million lives lost over a 100-day period. After arriving in America at the turn of the century, she secured a degree and now works with the homeless population and parents involved in custody cases.
“We were attacked by people who were our friends. It’s unthinkable to kill people because they don’t like your ethnic background. I crawled under a bed and that was my home for weeks,” she recalled.
Students were enamored by the vivid accounts rendered from the panelists. Questions were addressed and answers given. With other options available on a mild evening, the students attended on their own accord, not as a classroom assignment, and mingled with the speakers long afterward.
Among those attending was Dro Kanayan, chairman of the Armenian Genocide Curriculum Committee of Merrimack Valley, which has been enhancing genocide education north of Boston for the past three years.
“Creating awareness about human rights violations will hopefully help students make good decisions when they graduate—to help prevent these crimes against humanity from ever occurring again,” he noted.