Representatives from Doctors Without Walls Santa Barbara Street Medicine paid tribute to humanitarian Paul Rusesabagina, whose real-life story is the basis for the acclaimed film Hotel Rwanda, at a private fundraiser held recently at the home of Diana Star Langley in Montecito.
“We are here today to honor the work of Doctors Without Walls Santa Barbra Street Medicine and also to highlight the humanitarian work of Mr. Rusesabagina, who was pivotal in saving over 1,200 lives during the 1994 Rwanda genocide,” newly appointed Executive Director Maria Long said.
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying the president of Rwanda and the president of Burundi was shot down, igniting a centuries-old power struggle and ethnically motivated violence between the Hutu majority in the east-central African nation and the Tutsi minority.
The genocide resulted in the mass murder of 800,000 Rwandans by the government-backed Hutu militia. During the three-month period of violence, local diplomats and government-sponsored radio stations incited Rwanda civilians to murder their neighbors.
At the intimate cocktail reception, Rusesabagina spoke at great length about the unimaginable travesty that forever changed his life and the lives of millions across the African continent.
Rusesabagina said that he, his wife and their children watched in horror as ethnic Hutu began killing their Tutsi neighbors and the familiar faces of friends lay dead in piles along the roadside of the normally peaceful neighborhood.
When a Hutu captain put a gun to his head and a gun in his hand, asking him to kill his own family and neighbors, Rusesabagina calmly replied, “I don’t know how to use a gun.”
“I quickly learned to keep the peace and save lives with words instead of guns,” he said.
Thirty-four survivors fled to his home for shelter and safety and were later taken by soldiers at gunpoint to the Hotel des Mille Collines, a luxury hotel in the Rwanda capital, Kigali, where Rusesabagina worked as a hotel manager.
In an extreme act of courage, he turned the hotel into an impromptu refugee camp and saved the lives of more than 1,200 people who sought shelter at the hotel.
When faced with unruly, tired and hungry Hutu soldiers who demanded supplies and lodging at the hotel, he tempered their aggression with bribes, calling in favors and trading liquor for lives.
“If we listen to our conscience, the inner advisor we will always do the right thing,” Rusesabgina said.
For three decades, Rusesabgina has been speaking out as a voice of the voiceless, keeping the memory of the thousands of lives lost and the millions more who were displaced due to the genocide.
The atrocities he witnessed are painfully featured in the 2004 historical drama film Hotel Rwanda and documented in his 2006 autobiography, An Ordinary Man.
Rusesabgina also founded the Hotel Rwanda Rusesabagina Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to instill peace, justice, truth and reconciliation in the Great Lakes Region of Africa and helps the survivors and victims of genocide overcome its traumatic effects.
“This is what the world doesn’t know since 1996 when the Rwandan army invaded the Congo,” he said. “To date, more than 7 million people have been killed only because they were born in a land that contains minerals — what they call blood minerals.
“These people cannot talk for themselves, and I am their voice — as Doctors Without Walls is the voice, is the hand, is the organization for street people here in this small city.”
Rusesabgina recently spoke to UCSB students and community residents at the 2014 Underserved Medicine Course Seminar at UCSB, sponsored by Doctors Without Walls Santa Barbara Street Medicine and spearheaded by Dr. Jason Prystowsky, director DWW-SBSM. The volunteer-based course is designed to educate the next generation of humanitarian healers by inviting speakers from around the world to discuss various aspects of humanitarian work regarding health and is open to the public.
“Whenever people are doing the right thing, I’m always attracted to their efforts and want to get involved,” Rusesabgina said.
Founded in 2005 and formally known as Doctors Without Walls, the volunteer organization is made up of physicians, nurses, social workers, students and community humanitarians who provide cost-free medical care to the homeless and most vulnerable people on the streets of Santa Barbara County. The services provided include medical aid and relief to residents when disasters such as fires and earthquakes occur in the region.
Additionally, the foundation provides free year-round mobile clinics within designated areas across Santa Barbara County, including Alameda Park Clinic, Pershing Park Clinic, Isla Vista Clinic and the Women’s Free Homeless Clinic hosted at Transition House.
These ongoing efforts to provide medical assistance to the less fortunate and uninsured population of Santa Barbara County have not gone unnoticed, and during the reception, Carla Castilla, district director for state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, presented the foundation with a certificate of recognition for their humanitarian work.
“The reason Paul’s here is that we like to think that we have two beneficiaries," Prystowsky said. "We provide a really wonderful service to the homeless and working poor who don’t have access to medical care here, and we also take a lot of pride in our students and educating the next generation of humanitarians.”
To find out more about Doctors Without Walls and volunteer opportunities, click here to visit its website.
— Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.