Paul Rusesabagina, a part-time resident of San Antonio best known for sheltering refugees during the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, was kidnapped and taken to Rwanda last year, where he was detained on charges of terrorism. Last month, Rusesabagina was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The following is a speech delivered by Paul’s son, Trésor Rusesabagina, at a rally and fundraiser in support of his father at Legacy Park in downtown San Antonio last Thursday. It has been edited for clarity and length.
When St. Mary’s University President Tom Mengler quoted Pope Paul VI, I was reminded of my father. “If you want peace, you have to work for justice.” That sounds like my dad. When we were kids, we had to work for everything.
If you wanted something, you had to work for it — you had to show him you really wanted to work for it. And what I wanted more than anything was to go to America. I was about 11 years old and didn’t speak English then. And Dad said, “If you want to go to America, you have to learn English.”
Being an 11-year-old Rwandan-Belgian kid, the only things I could relate to America were Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and a little bit of hip hop here and there. In fact, to learn English, I printed out a song by the artist 50 Cent. When I recited the words in English to my father, he just looked at me and said, “Son, that is not English!”
A week later, I was on a flight to summer school in America to learn English. That’s my dad. Because he wanted my dreams to come true, he did everything he could — but he made me work for it. That’s the kind of father he is. He’s a really tough guy, but he is also soft when he needs to be. He knew exactly how to raise us kids.
A lot of people ask, “How do you feel?” How does it feel living without your father, who was kidnapped and is under a death sentence for criticizing a dictator? Truthfully, I don’t know how to answer that.
So let me turn it around and ask: How would you feel? Imagine someone you love: a son, a father, your mother, or a really good friend. Imagine them in a hole in solitary confinement, for months in the dark. Can you do that? Can you see them not getting the medication they need, not getting the food they need? Can you imagine them tortured? I bet you can’t. I can because I have to.
But if my dad taught me anything, it’s to have principles. Principles have kept me strong. So, if you ask how I feel, I feel strong. I may not tell you I am happy, but I’m strong. I stand here, solid, like my dad. Like my sisters. Like my brother. Like my mother. We are a family. We are here, and we are strong. Tonight, everybody is here because we know my dad shouldn’t be the captive prisoner of a dictator.
A few minutes ago, a reporter asked me, “If your dad could hear you, what would you say?” I looked into the camera and I said, “Dad, I want you to know we are not giving up. I want you to know you are not alone. Wherever you are, you are not alone, even with those dark walls around you. We know they are keeping you isolated to try to weaken you. But you are not alone. You’ve got us. You’ve got me, your son. You’ve got my brother. You have my sisters. And look around tonight. You have these people. These wonderful people who came for you.”
My dad, if you know him, he’s the type of person that would give you everything. If there were injustice, no matter where, he wouldn’t let it stand. He would speak out. And I know that’s why he was kidnapped and tried before a kangaroo court and is in prison today. He was willing to stand up to tyranny before the genocide and before the movie Hotel Rwanda made him famous.
Right now, my dad needs help. He is one man, standing alone, fighting an unjust regime — even in prison. Even there, I know that he would help anybody.
Sometimes, I wish I’d told him, “Can you just be a dad and not worry about the world?” But I understand why he did it. As I grow older, I get it. It’s part of being selfless. That’s what he taught me.
He’s someone who would have helped anybody here. He would have helped you, too. Now, he is the one who needs help. He needs us. As we are about to watch Hotel Rwanda, I hope you remember that. Every time you see him in the film do something selfless, remember he would do the same for you.