Thursday, May 16, 2013

Profile in Courage: Paul Rusesabagina of 'Hotel Rwanda' Brings "Voice for the Voiceless" to DuPage County

Event Recap

Paul Rusesabagina
Fundraiser for the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation
Hosted by the Democratic Party of DuPage County
May 15, 2013

If you haven't seen the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda--and you absolutely should, as it's a terrific movie and important true story--chances are the name Paul Rusesabagina doesn't mean much to you.

But he is a hero.

Like Oskar Schindler and courageous others throughout history, Rusesabagina saved many lives while putting his own at considerable risk.

Hotel Rwanda, in which Rusesabagina is remarkably embodied by Don Cheadle, chronicles his selfless efforts as manager of the Hôtel des Mille Collines in Kigali, Rwanda in 1994.

Though this brief synopsis won't do justice to Rusesabagina's exploits, the movie or his book, An Ordinary Man, at great peril to himself Paul essentially hid 1,268 refugees at the hotel in the midst of a genocide arising out of a clash between warring factions in Rwanda (Hutu and Tutsi), almost assuredly saving their lives.

So it seemed that taking a ride out to Lombard for a fundraiser for Rusesabagina's foundation, hosted by the Democratic Party of DuPage County, was not only a very slight effort compared to what the guest of honor had done and seen, but something I should do.

And other than Bob Peickert, chairman of the DuPage Dems--for whom I have done some marketing work over the years--Mr. Rusesabagina was the first person I spoke with after arriving at the King's Hall Banquets, now occupying a space I remembered as once being the second-run Northgate movie theater.

I found Paul to be quite friendly and down-to-earth, and while he pointed out that he is 10 years older than Cheadle, not so unlike the movie version of himself.

As I waited to greet him, Rusesabagina was entertaining a group of Hinsdale South high school students who were at the fundraiser and seemingly quite passionate in learning about a man who had walked in the shadow of death before they were even born.

In his formal speech to a crowd of perhaps 100 or so, Rusesabagina noted that shortly before the genocide erupted--marked, as depicted in Hotel Rwanda, by mass slaughter by machete--he had traveled to Belgium with his family for a managers meeting at the headquarters of Sabena, the Mille Collines' parent company.

Had he any inkling of what would happen in the days ahead, he surely would have stayed in Belgium, or at least left his wife and kids there. For as he related, he arrived back in Rwanda on March 31, 1994--six days before things went to hell (my phrasing, not his).

On the evening of April 6, Paul was having dinner with his brother-in-law and the latter's wife, celebrating her recent college graduation. Around 8:30pm, they heard a missile hitting the plane of Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, who like Paul was part of the Hutu ethnic group. His wife Tatiana and her relatives were Tutsi.

The president and 11 others were killed instantly, setting off a genocide of Tutsis at the hands--and swords--of the Hutus that would see over 500,000 people slaughtered in just 100 days, including Tatiana's brother and sister-in-law, with whom Paul had dined on a day he recalled as "the worst moment in my life."

As shown in the movie--SPOILER ALERT--Paul and Tatiana eventually found their two orphaned nieces in a refugee camp, and subsequently adopted them (joining their four other children).

Thus, it was quite touching and gratifying to hear Rusesabagina--who now lives primarily in Texas, by way of Belgium, where he had left Rwanda for in 1996--that his two adopted daughters are now studying at Georgetown and Northwestern.

Not too surprisingly, given that when I had directly asked him about Hotel Rwanda he said it was nearly a documentary, many of Rusesabagina's remembrances closely echoed events in the film, which I just watched again over the weekend.

He expressed how, every day from the hotel office, he sent faxes to Washington, London, Paris and other world capitals, asking for international help to quell the devastation.

"I knew they weren't coming, but I still wanted to shame them into doing the right thing," Rusesabagina stated in his speech.

Paul also shared how he wound up being #1 on a list of Rwandans to be evacuated during the genocide, along with his family. But as enacted in the movie, he decided he couldn't leave the Mille Collines refugees behind.

"I was the only one who could negotiate with the bad guys not to kill everyone."

Rusesabagina denied acute awareness about why he was designated for--or even particularly disposed to--this pivotal peace broker role, but did offer:
"Whenever there's a conflict, it can be better solved with words than guns."
Through his Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, to which all of the evening's proceeds were directed, Paul remains entirely dedicated to raising awareness about human rights abuses, and especially to preventing future genocides.

In closing his formal remarks, Paul Rusesabagina--who has seen and done things most people never will--urged the integrated crowd to action.

"We need your help. We need everyone to get involved.

"Spread the word. Tell the world leaders: 'Stand up and do the right thing.'

"Help the helpless. Be the voice of the voiceless.

"This is my mission. I hope it can be yours."

Pretty inspiring. And more than reason enough to contribute an extra $20 to get a signed copy of Rusesabagina's book, An Ordinary Man, before heading back to Skokie.

But not before I was advised not to engage with the "Rwandan agents" that were supposedly in the King's Hall parking lot.

Especially given the altruistic, humanitarian and noble tenor of the evening, I certainly hope that everyone--including the guest of honor--made their way to their cars, and home, without incident.

And that Paul Rusesabagina will return to the Chicago area in the not too distant future, so that you, too,  can see and hear a true movie hero share his remarkable real-life story.

To donate to the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation and/or contact Paul, please visit

1 comment:

Dan said...

This was the second time I heard Mr Rusesabagina. What I found especially noteworthy was that he was a businessman, a family man not a do gooder. When he was confronted by the likely death of his neighbors and others he felt he could not leave them to die.