Humanitarians and Heroes

Jen Bradbury
Jul 05 · 5 min read

Occasionally I see something on Twitter that elicits an immediate emotional reaction in me.

Such was the case last week when I saw this promoted tweet from Walden University:

I couldn't help myself. 

I clicked on the link and found Walden University's Press Release about it. Among other things, it sang Rusesabagina's praises, saying “Rusesabagina was a hotel manager turned hero for more than 1,200 people seeking refuge during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. His personal mission to teach the lessons of Rwanda has grown into an international movement of social justice and human rights activism.”

Of course, we in America know Rusesabagina more from Don Cheadle's portrayal of him in the 2004 film, Hotel Rwanda, than from actually having paid attention to the Rwandan Genocide when it was occurring. (Let's face it. In 1994, we were, as a nation, far more preoccupied with whether OJ killed Nicole than with the hundreds of thousands of people being slaughtered in a tiny, obscure African nation.) 

The problem is that Rwandans – actual survivors of the Genocide – largely consider that movie to be an inaccurate portrayal of Rusesabagina's actions during the Genocide.

I first heard rumors of this just days before leaving for Rwanda in 2011 when I was invited to attend a fundraising event in downtown Chicago for Rusesabagina's organization. There, I met Rusesabagina but I also met one of his detractors, a survivor of the Genocide who swore Rusesabagina was not the hero we assumed he was.

Kigali Genocide Memorial

A few days later, as I stood at the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali, I was struck by the fact that Rusesabagina's name was absent from a wall dedicated to the heroes of the genocide – ordinary men and women who risked their lives to save others.

When asked, our host and guide explained most Rwandans do not consider Rusesabagina to be the hero Americans assume he is thanks to Hotel Rwanda.

Hotel Rwanda

A few days later, I stood in the courtyard of the Mille Collines Hotel, the hotel Rusesabagina managed during the Genocide. It was here his heroic actions were said to have taken place.

There, I listened to another perspective – the perspective held by many Rwandans who believe Rusesabagina did nothing heroic during the Genocide; That rather than sacrifice and risk much of himself, he was, in actuality charging money for those he “saved” by allowing them to stay there. He profited while others died.

Today, Rusesabagina lives in exile from Rwanda.

His supporters argue this is because he's fiercely critical of the Rwandan government, led by President Paul Kagame.

His detractors argue this is because he is unwelcome in a country that knows the truth about what he did and didn't do during the Genocide.

As I've thought about this in the days since seeing that initial tweet from Walden University, I've wondered, “How can we who were not there during the 100 days of the Rwandan Genocide declare someone to be a humanitarian and hero when those who were do not share the same sentiment? How can we trust the depiction of a Hollywood blockbuster more than the words of Rwandan genocide survivors? Beyond that, what makes someone a hero in the first place?”

Days later, I was still pondering these questions when I received word that Heidi Moll Schoedel, Executive Director of Exodus World Service, had unexpectedly died.

My first thought was, “Now there's a true humanitarian and hero.”

And here's the thing: Chances are good you've never heard of Heidi.

That's the thing about true humanitarians and heroes. They tend to run from rather than toward the spotlight, preferring for their work - and not themselves - to get the accolades.

To be sure, Heidi deserved accolades. Some 25 years ago, she founded Exodus World Service – an organization whose mission is to mobilize the Christian community to welcome refugees. She did so in an era in which welcoming and advocating on behalf of refugees was seldom talked about. No doubt, she also did so with some degree of self-sacrifice. But she did so because she knew it was good and right to speak out and advocate on behalf of those with no voice.

Over the next 25 years, Heidi continued to humbly serve this organization. The few times I met Heidi, I was struck by how ordinary she seemed, despite having begun an organization that has since helped thousands.

Never once did I hear Heidi sing her own praises. Instead, I heard her repeatedly sing the praises of others – of the hundreds of volunteers Exodus equipped for refugee ministry. In the process, she united Christians from all over the world, from denominations of all kinds.

Her actions were, in a word, heroic.

Even so, unlike Rusesabagina, I'm fairly sure no one will ever make a Hollywood blockbuster about Heidi.

Such is the case with true heroes.

Their stories largely go unsung... Except, of course, for the lives that are changed because of them.