SMU announced last week that it's expanding its Education Abroad program, with Rwanda now among the summer destinations. The timing is deliberate: 2009 marks the 15th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide that left some 800,000 Tutsis dead at the hands of the Hutu militia. Not surprisingly, Rick Halperin will lead the tour. He's a longtime human rights activist and director of SMU's Human Rights Education Program.
"The goal is to confront the remains and lasting effects of the 1994 genocide which killed 1 million people in three months," Halperin tells Unfair Park. "It's designed for students to pay their respects to those who perished and to come to grips with the effects of genocide -- not just in Rwanda. It's still happening in other places like Darfur."
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As the tiny country continues to wrestle with its recent history, students will meet with women's groups, aid organizations and human rights advocates. Halperin, who has taught at SMU since 1985, says today's students seem more concerned about what's happening in the world -- and, more specifically, in human rights.
"In the '80s many students weren't overly concerned about the plight of what was happening in their world," he says. "It was the mentality of Wall Street: Greed is good. But I saw a noticeable change in the early '90s, when the conflict and horrors erupted in Bosnia with ethnic cleansing and mass rape of women. That was immediately followed by Rwanda in 1994. ... [There was] Desert Storm in 1990; there was the fall of the Berlin Wall and apartheid. Ever since then, even long before we got a human rights program at SMU, students have exhibited an overriding interest in human rights and social justice."
Asked if that has increased over the past year, during the campaign and eventual election of Barack Obama, Halperin is diplomatic but says that, basically, yes, it has.
"I think a lot of people understand, however they voted, that they witnessed a paradigm shift in their country's history," he says. "This is good. When young people are energized about their own country and the world, this is as it should be."