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Education, global awareness needed to prevent future genocides, survivors say

by Public Relations and Marketing | Published Apr 17, 2019

To prevent future genocides, generations present and future must educate themselves about past atrocities and remember that humanity is all one family.

That’s the word from three 20th century genocide survivors who spoke at “While The World Watched,” a panel discussion at the College of Lake County April 9. They included Estelle Laughlin, 89, a Lincolnshire resident who escaped the Holocaust. The other panelists included Claire Mukundente, 39, who fled atrocities in Rwanda and Anneth Houy, 37, who fled Cambodia with her family to escape the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. The three spoke at a panel discussion organized by Larry Leck, adjunct humanities professor and coordinator of CLC’s Center for Nonviolence.

The event was part of global efforts to recognize the 25th anniversary of the Rwanda tragedy in Africa. During the Rwandan Civil War, the Hutu majority government conducted a mass slaughter of an estimated 800,000 Tutsi, between April and July of 1994, Leck said.

Laughlin, the first speaker, was 10 years old when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. Months later, the Nazis rounded up 400,000 Jews in Warsaw, including Photo of three genocide survivors who spoke an an April 9 panel discussionLaughlin along with her mother, father and older sister, and forced them to live in a 1.3 square-mile-area. Later, in 1942, 300,000 ghetto residents were deported to Treblinka II, an extermination camp. During this time, Laughlin and her family hid in a secret room to escape the deportations.

Photo: From left: Genocide survivors Estelle Laughlin (Holocaust), Claire Mukundente (Rwanda) and Anneth Houy (Cambodia) share their experiences at an April 9 panel discussion.

After the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising failed in April 1943, Laughlin’s family was forced to board train cars and were transported to the Lublin/Majdanek concentration camp. Along with her sister and mother, Laughlin was chosen for forced labor, but her father was sent to the gas chamber. After being moved to two other Nazi concentration camps for more forced labor in munitions factories, the three moved to southern Germany in August 1945 following the Nazis’ surrender. Two years later, the three moved to New York City to join relatives living there.

Laughlin eventually moved to the Chicago area, where she worked as an elementary school teacher and reading specialist and later authored "Transcending Darkness: A Girl's Journey Out of the Holocaust."

Human beings are capable of immense cruelty, and you have to dehumanize someone before you do something ugly,” said Laughlin, who also volunteers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. “We have to pay attention to that, butalso appreciate the power and importance of love. Humanity is like one family. If we diminish one group, we diminish all of humanity, and we make the world a less hospitable and secure place for all our children. The main reason I tell my story is that I hope it will serve as reminder to humanity as to what happens when we accommodate ourselves to tyrants.”

Raising awareness is also a calling for Mukundente, now 39. Following the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the then-15-year-old, along with her sister Clemantine, spent years in refugee camps. Later, Claire met her husband in one of the camps and had two children before the family, along with Clemantine, came to Chicago in 2000. After cleaning hotel rooms for several years, Mukundente founded the Chicago-based Women United for Refugees and Immigrants of Illinois in 2017. “I was survivor for a reason,” she said. “To prevent future atrocities, we have to see each other as human to human. Let’s make a difference by doing something for someone every day, starting with our own families.”

In addition to Rwanda, the horrors of the Cambodian genocide need to be told to a new generation, said Houy. She was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1982, after her family fled Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge communist party led by Pol Pot. The regime ruled Cambodia after its 1975 victory in the Cambodian Civil War, and from 1975-79, the Khmer Rouge conducted a genocide that killed more than two million people, or 25 percent of Cambodia’s population. It would be nearly 10 years before her family received approval to come to the U.S. Houy currently is the youth program director at the Chicago-based Cambodian Association of Illinois.

If nations traditionally have failed to confront genocides, it is because there has been no political cost to inaction, said Leck. On a more hopeful note, he pointed to the The Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act. Named for the late, world-renowned Holocaust survivor and famed author, the act passed with an overwhelming, bipartisan majority in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives in December and was signed into law by President Trump in January. The act declares that the prevention of genocide and other atrocities is “a core national security interest” of the United States, adding that it is also “a core moral responsibility.”

Hearing the three speakers was “amazing and inspiring,” said Melinda Kennedy, an accounting manager from Fox Lake who attended the panel discussion. “It’s very important for people to hear genocide survivors because it opens up your eyes and helps you understand what they went through, and to hope for a better tomorrow.”

About College of Lake County:

College of Lake County is an innovative community college in Lake County, Ill. that transforms lives with its variety of accessible, quality education options. Offered at three campuses in Grayslake, Vernon Hills and Waukegan or online, College of Lake County provides affordable options in a state-of-the-art setting close to home. A large student network, with small class sizes, provides advantages to our students on a career-related program or a path toward a transfer degree. We’re proud to serve the diverse needs of our community and student body. Connect to your future today at College of Lake County.