Traveling exhibit shows the costs of genocide

An exhibit of 10 tents built to be similar to those used by 350,000 Darfur refugees living in Chad has received a grant for its ability to bring people from different cultures and faiths together.

The exhibit won the $15,500 grant in the Minnesota Open Idea competition. The funding will be used to bring the exhibit free of charge to schools, faith organizations and civic groups around Minnesota for a year.

Margo O’Dell of Edina and World Without Genocide founder Ellen Kennedy of Edina spent more than two years creating the exhibit “Tents of Witness: Genocide and Conflict.” The exhibit represents the Holocaust, Cambodia, Argentina, Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Sri Lanka, North Korea, Congo and Native Americans. Each 8-foot-by-10-foot tent includes photos and stories highlighting the culture prior to the violence, the conflict and the challenges faced by the survivors.

Ellen Kennedy of Edina, founder of World Without Genocide, stands with the non-profit’s exhibit “Tents of Witness: Genocide and Conflict.” Margo O’Dell of Edina also played a roll in creating the exhibit. The exhibit received a grant that will allow it to be moved to various communities around Minnesota. (Submitted photo)

The idea for the exhibit came from Stop Genocide Now’s exhibit “Camp Darfur” in California. After bringing the exhibit to Minnesota several times, she decided World Without Genocide should develop its own exhibit for Minnesota.

To create Tents of Witness, Kennedy wanted to work with the local refugee communities living in Minnesota who had direct and personal ties to the conflicts. Much of the two years was spent building relationships with the refugees. Refugees, and people who have lived in the country and have a deep commitment to the country, created the tents. Kennedy said. The funding for the exhibit’s creation also came from individuals, organizations, foundations and faith communities who are connected the countries and the refugees highlighted in the exhibit.

In addition to the goal of raising people’s awareness about the conflicts, the exhibit is also meant to educate Minnesotans about the immigrants moving into their communities, and to help Minnesotans respect and embrace the diversity in their communities.

“The faces of Minnesota are changing,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy’s non-profit World Without Genocide is housed in the William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, where Kennedy, a sociologist, teaches the class “Genocide Prevention: The 21st Century Challenge” as an adjunct professor.

She founded World Without Genocide after a two-week trip to Rwanda, where she traveled around the country with a small group of people.

A Rwandan named Alice Musabende was also in the group traveling and Kennedy and Musabende would talk about what happened to her during the 1994 Rwandan genocide that killed 800,000 people in 100 days. Musabende, 14 at the time, came home from spending the night with her relatives in the neighboring village to find the bodies of her grandparents, parents, 12-year-old sister, and 9-year-old and 2-year-old brothers, turning her into an orphan, Kennedy said.

“My daughter is the same age and at that time, Louisa was in school in Edina, living a totally different life,” Kennedy said. She said she felt saddened, and responsible because she knew about what was happening in Rwanda at the time and she did nothing.

While at a small memorial museum during the trip, Kennedy saw tables lined with skulls with machete marks in them and she began to sob. Musabende comforted her, saying, “You don’t have to look at this. This is our problem.”

“This was a visible and shocking reality to me… It was close to my reality and my humanity,” she said.

Kennedy, who is Jewish, grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. Her distant family was killed at Vilna Ghetto in Lithuania and some of her parent’s friends had numbers tattooed on their arms.

Back in the United States, she discussed her trip to Rwanda with her students at the University of St. Thomas, where she was teaching at the time. Afterwards, student Ina Ziegler asked her what they were going to do about it, which upset Kennedy. She thought she was doing enough by teaching about genocide, traveling to the countries where it occurred and partnering her students with refugees in the community.

The founding of World Without Genocide in January 2006 was a direct result of Musabende’s statement and Ziegler’s question.

The goals of the non-profit are education, advocacy and leadership development.  Kennedy is especially focused on helping youth understand genocide and nurturing their dedication to human rights. To that end, they are running their summer institute for high school students for the second year this year.

“We need to raise a generation of young people who are committed to human rights,” she said.