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Rwandan woman finds inspiration after genocide

In an interview shortly before delivering the keynote address at a Martin Luther King Jr. memorial service at North Shore University Hospital Friday, Murekatete, 23, said King was "a great man" but that "we still see so much prejudice" in the world."I really do believe that everyone has to be involved" in promoting peace, Murekatete said. Murekatete said she was a "relatively happy child before the genocide" in Rwanda, a small country in central Africa, although her minority ethnic group, known as Tutsis, "were often killed and we were discriminated against."The 1994 genocide, which led to the deaths of about 800,000 to 1 million Tutsis, began after a plane carrying the Rwandan president - a member of the majority ethnic group known as Hutus - was shot down.Murekatete said there were calls from the Hutu-led government to massacre Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Her ethnic group was characterized as "foreigners who were not to be trusted.""You had people who used to be your friends - these were the people who picked up machetes in 1994," Murekatete said.She said her family's Hutu neighbors took them to a nearby river, where they were killed with machetes. Murekatete was living in an orphanage with her grandmother at the time.Shortly after the deaths of her family members, Murekatete was adopted by her uncle, who lived in Glen Oaks, in 1995."The year after the genocide was a difficult period for me and difficult for me to comprehend," she said. "I was still struggling to understand what happened to me in Rwanda - for 1 million people to be killed for who they were. I hoped someone would've told me that it was a nightmare." Murekatete decided to speak out about her experience while attending Martin Van Buren High School in Queens Village, when Dave Gewirtzman, a Holocaust survivor, spoke to her class.Gewirtzman, who also spoke at the North Shore memorial service Friday, was a child in Poland when the German army invaded his town in 1939.He said the Jews of the town were ordered to pack 15 pounds of food and clothing and go to the town square, but his family chose to hide in a secret compartment inside their apartment.They were eventually found by Hitler's SS military organization and Polish police and taken to a nearby jail where police said they would be shot.But Gewirtzman said the police mistook a boy and his younger sister, who were in the jail because they had stolen clothing from the ghetto, for him and his sister and he was spared death because of the mistake.He was then taken to a labor camp, where he saw the same Polish policeman who had arrested him. He said the man "felt remorse" and allowed his family to hide in his home.Gewirtzman and his family were eventually liberated by the Russian army and he moved to Italy before settling on Long Island, where he opened a pharmacy on Northern Boulevard. He is now retired and lives in the Bronx.Murekatete graduated from Van Buren and received a degree in political science from New York University. She now lives in Brooklyn.In April, she founded a nonprofit called Jacqueline's Human Rights Corner and speaks around the world about genocide."I think that as long as we continue to be ignorant, silent and indifferent, it's going to continue," she said.Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at hkoplowitz@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 173.

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