Response to Open Letter and further apology
Editor’s note: This letter was originally posted on No One Is Illegal-Vancouver unceded Coast Salish Territories’ website, in response to an Open Letter that we had published, and we have been asked to re-post it here. Further reading on the topic can be found here and here.
Dear Marie-Jolie Rwigema, Diana Uwase Sauter, concerned members of Vancouver’s Rwandan community, as well as Elleni Centime Zeleke, Delice Mugabo and Hawa Y. Mire,
As indicated in our last email, we were in the process of writing a further apology. Since then we have also received the additional open letter. This is our further apology to our first and also a response to the open letter from December 15th addressed to NOII and supporters.
We don’t want to explain, justify or make excuses for our Refugees Voices event in October 2015, but rather want to take full responsibility for a series of harms we caused.
The decision to invite a Rwandan speaker and keep him on the program after concerns were raised the night prior was irresponsible on our part. In our ignorance of Rwandan history, we treated the lived traumas of survivors and your experiences and concerns of genocide negation trivially. It was also the result of our lack of meaningful relationships to broader Rwandan communities. We should have cancelled the event when concerns were raised the night prior given their gravity, but proceeded while not considering the consequences and impacts of our actions. This was a thoughtless and heartless decision and in doing so, we failed you.
Our failing meant that we created a space where an elder Rwandan woman in attendance was eventually struck. We are ashamed to have created a space that resulted in her re-traumatization. We are very sorry for the pain and hardship, and are available to offer further in-person apologies. We unequivocally reiterate our apology for the trauma we caused to both Rwandan women in attendance, to members of Vancouver and Canada’s Rwandan community, and to others affected. Our words cannot undo the harm and we take full responsibility for not prioritizing physical and emotional safety of survivors, especially women living under multiple conditions of violence.
As indicated in our first letter, we have communicated with the speaker that he is no longer welcome at our events.
Since this critical issue entered into the public realm and over social media, there has been a range of comments including some where Black women were harassed and intimidated. No one engaging in such behaviour is a member of or represents our collective. We urge anyone and everyone doing so to cease, as this is unacceptable. In particular we will be going through our social media feed and deleting any comments identified as harassment, as well as being attentive to our Facebook page once a day. We didn’t attend to this immediately but should have in order to ensure a safer public forum and the safety and dignity of Black women asserting their voices.
Our two letters are the only representations of our collective position thus far. A recent piece in Share Magazine is not reflective of us and any subsequent pieces not authored by us do not represent us. We have not asked anyone to speak on our behalf or in our defence, as our apologies are sincere.
We offer our respect to survivor communities of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. We do not deny or minimize the genocide in Rwanda nor do we align with revisionist histories that minimize the impact on survivors. We commit to learning more about Rwandan history and acting to ensure that our spaces do not dismiss the traumas of survivors and do not perpetuate the harms associated with the denial or minimization of genocide.
To ensure that the safety of all Rwandan refugee survivor communities is prioritized at our events in the future requires us to strengthen and build long-term relationships with African and Black migrant and refugee communities. At the root of our failings with this event is a broader structural failing: we and the migrant justice movement generally have not centered Black and African refugee and migrant experiences and this perpetuates anti-Black racism.
At this time we will not be organizing public events or campaigns until we can address these commitments meaningfully. It would be wrong for us to treat this as an isolated incident without shifting our practices. We will continue to be responsible to our ongoing direct anti-deportation support work and Indigenous solidarity commitments. In order to ensure that our work is aligned with and accountable to diverse African and Black-identified communities, we will be intentionally prioritizing conversations and relationships internally and with community members, inviting broader dialogue and critique, and hopefully contributing to necessary structural shifts in migrant justice organizing.
The time we allowed to pass between responses is long. We are an all-volunteer group with collectivist decision-making processes, and we apologize that those constraints impede our ability to respond in a timely way.
We remain open to comments or critiques and also welcome direct dialogue. A number of other concerned individuals have asked some event organizers and event attendees to provide detailed witness statements of the event that may be forthcoming independently. We are committed to long-term reflection, work and relationship repair.
We can be reached via phone through 778-862-8895 or email through email@example.com.
No One Is Illegal-Vancouver unceded Coast Salish Territories