Against the odds: Rwandan genocide survivor will share story during upcoming retreat

Immaculee Ilibagiza. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed

Ilibagiza will be in Dubuque for a presentation Nov. 5-6. PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed

Ninety-one days.

That’s how long Immaculee Ilibagiza took to hiding in a cramped bathroom with seven other women as her family was killed and the life she had known in her East African home was brutally taken from her.

She was 24 when the Rwandan genocide took place between April 7 and July 15, 1994. During that time, members of the Tutsi minority ethnic group, as well as those of moderate Hutu and Twa, were slaughtered by armed militia.

It’s estimated that between 500,000 and 800,000 were killed among the Tutsi, with the total death toll at approximately 1,100,000, including Hutu and Twa victims.

“What I went through came in stages,” Ilibagiza said in a phone interview. “I had grief and sadness being separated from my family, wondering if I would ever see them again. In the bathroom, once I started to feel safe, I also started to feel angry. Then, I began to feel impatient. I experienced every bad emotion in that first week.”

What got her through was a set of rosary beads her father, a devout Catholic and teacher, had given her.

“When things were getting worse, I decided to pray,” said Ilibagiza, 51. “I said to God, ‘Are you here? If you are here, give me a sign.’ And with that, our killer stopped at our door and didn’t find us. I knew that God heard me. I knew that God understood me. I knew that God was real. Mary tells us that if we pray from the heart and really mean it, anything is possible.”

She credits the divine power she found through prayer with helping her survive, forgive her tormentors and start a new life through mission work in Rwanda, where she met her husband.

Only four years after the genocide took place, the two relocated to New York, found work and had two children.

“Every day, I just kept praying and asking God to show me what I was supposed to be doing,” Ilibagiza said. “I knew that because I was left behind, I had to do something and that God had blessed me and would show me what I was supposed to do. I had to take the dark cloud off of my heart that came from hate and transition to forgiveness and love. I had to help other people who were in pain and who needed love. Those people became my target.”

She believes it also was the encouragement of those she counseled and a heart open to prayer that led her to becoming the New York Times best-selling author of “Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust” and speaker who has gone on to inspire others through her story and retreats.

She’ll present one such offering on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 5 and 6, at Resurrection Catholic Church in Dubuque. The cost is $57 for one person or $76 for one person with a guest and is open to men, women and teenagers.

Ilibagiza said the goal of the retreat is to not only share her faith philosophy but also to help people come to an understanding of prayer and how to use it as a tool in their lives.

“When people hear my story, they inevitably start to unload their own stories and hurts,” she said. “We spend a lot of time praying together. We also talk about the different ways to pray, whether that’s through saying the rosary, meditating or fasting. We talk about what that does to somebody and how they can start to see joy through suffering.”

Ilibagiza hosts retreats once per month and around the country. She also has authored four other books — “Led by Faith: Rising from the Ashes of the Rwandan Genocide,” “Our Lady of Kibeho: Mary Speaks to the World from the Heart of Africa,” “The Boy Who Met Jesus: Segatashya Emmanuel of Kibeho” and “The Rosary: The Prayer That Saved My Life.”

Another title is in the works for 2022.

Diane Link, a parishioner at Resurrection and one of the organizers of the retreat, said after having the opportunity to hear Ilibagiza speak a number of times, she was eager to share her message with Dubuque and surrounding archdiocese communities.

Retreat attendees from throughout Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota have registered to attend.

“I love her message, and I love what she represents in hope and forgiveness and love. And she speaks with such conviction about it,” Link said. “That’s something we all need a reminder of — what we’re truly here for. For her to lose her family and be able to forgive the people who caused that pain … She’s gone through a great deal of pain and overcame it through prayer. She does such a beautiful job, and so much comes through in her personality. I just wanted to bring her to Dubuque because the kind of person she is and the forgiving person she is is something people need to experience.”

Ilibagiza said that opportunities to turn inward through prayer and come to a deeper understand of their relationship to their faith is especially important today.

“People are really needing this right now in the world,” she said. “It will be a beautiful opportunity.”

For the retreat agenda and to register, visit For more information, contact Link at 563-590-5686 or

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