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March 16, 2018

Awareness Day Highlights Search for Unity, Need to Speak Out

A school tradition and a national event converged March 14th at the Academy of the Holy Angels, where the Awareness Day theme of “Seeking Unity in a Diverse World” dovetailed with student actions in solidarity with the survivors of the February 14th shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.


At the morning assembly, student leader Sydney Otis explained that the day would include opportunities to recall the 17 people who lost their lives last month, including a minute of silence in the morning. Later in the morning, several students gathered without speaking a word, holding signs that read, “Never again” and “Support gun reform.” During the afternoon, students observed 17 minutes of silence and wrote letters to their representatives or to the survivors of the Parkland shooting.

These thoughtful acts were AHA’s response to National Walkout Day. The students’ actions fit perfectly with the message delivered by Awareness Day keynote speaker Consolee Nishimwe, a survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Nishimwe, brought her message of action, hope, and love to an appreciative audience that thanked her with a standing ovation. After her main message, students asked a host of questions.


Nishimwe spoke of how the people who were so intent on carrying out the genocide were neighbors, friends, and people she knew and recognized from her village.


“It was very scary to see how quickly people changed,” she stated.


While her family was desperately trying to escape those who were trying to kill them, Nishimwe’s mother insisted that they all pray.


“She told us we should have God first in our lives and not carry the hatred within ourselves,” Nishimwe told the AHA community.


“I’ve learned so much from her. Despite the pain, I knew I should go to God.”


Nishimwe, who was just 14 in 1994, recounted the shocking murders of her aunt, father, and brothers, and the sexual assault that left her HIV positive.


Although she suffered great losses, Nishimwe said some of her family members, including her mother, survived. She noted that some of her friends have no family left, a fact that led her to resolve to be strong and become a voice for others.


“Respond to hatred with kindness,” Nishimwe said. “Allow yourself to have the courage and strength to do something.” She added that women are powerful, and urged her audience to never lose hope.


When a student asked how to prevent a recurrence of this type of tragedy, Nishimwe said, “Speak out. Speaking out is the best way to prevent injustices from happening.” She also said people must value and love one another.


“Be active in class and church, and write to your representatives.”


Nishimwe is an advocate for torture survivors and is the author of “Tested to the Limit: A Genocide Survivor’s Story of Pain, Resilience, and Hope.”

Awareness Day also featured a host of workshops presented by AHA students and invited guests. Sessions centered on international topics, human dignity, and peacemaking. Student presentations included information regarding service trips in a variety of countries, including Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Haiti, and the Philippines.

Sister Leonora Tucker, SSND, spoke about the School Sisters’ effort to house a family of Syrian refugees (a mother and her five children) in a house on the SSND grounds in Wilton, Connecticut. S. Leonora noted that 11 million people have been forced to flee Syria, and many are met with indifference. Pope Francis has urged the world to welcome and protect these refugees and help integrate them into society, and the SSNDs responded by accepting this family.


The mother of the family has received a driver’s license and found steady employment. When she learned English, she began to say “thank you” to the SSNDs again and again.


S. Leonora said she prays that the Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired…”) will become the norm again.


AHA Mission Integration Coordinator Joan Connelly spearheaded the organization of Awareness Day with the input of the school community, including a multitude of students.


Founded by the School Sisters of Notre Dame in 1879, the Academy of the Holy Angels is the oldest private girls’ school in Bergen County. While AHA is steeped in Catholic tradition, this prestigious high school serves young women from a broad spectrum of cultural and religious backgrounds. Over time, thousands of women have passed through AHA’s portals. Many go on to study at some of the nation’s best universities, earning high-ranking positions in medicine, government, law, education, public service, business, arts, and athletics. The Academy’s current leaders continue to further the SSND mission to provide each student with the tools she needs to reach the fullness of her potential—spiritually, intellectually, socially, and physically, by offering a first-rate education in a nurturing environment where equal importance is placed on academic excellence, character development, moral integrity, and service to others.