Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village helps young Rwandans heal

A visit from Rwandan students gives their American peers a chance to learn about the Rwandan genocide and the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, which cares for orphaned and other affected youths.

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    Students from the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda speak in front of a high school history class in Woburn, Mass.
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It was 2005, and South African-born Anne Heyman and her husband Seth Merrin had just listened to a native Rwandan speak about the genocide that occurred in the country in 1994.

It was the first time Ms. Heyman had met someone from Rwanda. After the talk, Mr. Merrin asked the speaker the biggest problem that Rwanda was facing. The speaker’s response, Heyman says, was the problem of caring for the orphans who had lost parents and other family members in the genocide and now found themselves on their own.

Heyman immediately thought of the similar problem encountered by Israel after World War II, when many children had lost parents in the Holocaust, and of the small enclaves built by that country for orphaned youths. The idea led her to create the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, a community in Rwanda where young adults who were affected by the genocide can attend school and, Heyman hopes, become emotionally well-developed individuals.

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The village’s name is a combination of the Kinyarwanda and Hebrew languages, meaning “a place to dry one’s tears in peace.”

“They tend to be so meek, worried,” Heyman says of the students who arrive at the village. “A lot of our kids have a lot of emotional baggage, to say the least.”

Heyman and those who helped her create the village have based it on the Yemin-Orde Youth Village in Israel, a community founded in 1953 that functions as a school and home to children and young adults from all over the world who have had their lives disrupted. When initially going through the process of securing finances for the Rwandan village, Heyman did so under the umbrella of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an organization that works to help those of the Jewish faith in need around the world.

Today the village is funded by a combination of donations from individuals, corporations, and foundations.

Agahozo-Shalom welcomed its first group of students, 125 in total, in December 2008 and currently has 375 students from ages 15 to 21. Its first class is graduating this year. Students come from each of the 30 districts of the country. Sixty percent of the student body is female.

Leaders in each of Rwanda's 30 districts gives Agahozo-Shalom a list of the young adults there who are most in need of attending the school. After cutting the list down to 200, the organization then visits the students to determine if the village would be a good fit.

When they enter the school, students go through an enrichment year in which they study a variety of basic subjects such as math, geography, and history. All classes are taught in English, per Rwandan law, and many of the students must learn English at the same time as they take the classes.

After their enrichment year, each student selects three subjects to study. Combinations include biology-chemistry-math, history-chemistry-geography, and math-economics-computers.

The students at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village live in cottages, which each house 16 young adults and are each named after a hero selected by the students who live there. Names chosen include Abraham Lincoln and Socrates.

One of the biggest challenges Heyman faces is helping students after graduation, she says. Part of the mission statement of the organization is to “provid[e] [students] with a safe and secure living environment, health care, education, and necessary life skills,” she says.

“There's nothing on there about them going to college or getting rich,” she says. “Do I want that for them? Yes.”

She is most happy about the success the village has had with helping young adults recover emotionally from the trauma they’ve faced. “I do know that these kids are so much better off when they arrived,” Heyman says.

Recently, Heyman and five students from the village traveled to the United States to speak with those who have supported the organization and meet students at American high schools. The group stayed in the US from May 13 to May 22.

On May 15, Heyman and three of the students – Liliane Umuhoza, Pascasie Nyirantwari, and Claude Irankunda – visited Woburn High School in Woburn, Mass., a Boston suburb, to talk with members of a sophomore honors US history class. The group also spoke at high schools in New York City, including one in Harlem, and performed at a fundraiser for the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village.

The Woburn class was selected through a recommendation from Brendan Doherty, their teacher, who is also the head of the history department. Cummings Properties, a Massachusetts-based real estate development, property management, and construction firm, one of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village’s donors, contacted Mr. Doherty about having the Rwandan students come to the school.

To prepare for the visit, the American students watched the film “Hotel Rwanda,” which takes place during the genocide.

This was the first time in his memory students from another country have come to speak with Woburn students, Doherty says, adding that he considers it an extremely valuable experience for American students.

“One of the faults of American education is a lack of introduction to other cultures,” Doherty says. “That's as important as anything they learn in math and history.”

The Woburn students formed a circle with their desks in the classroom, and when Ms. Umuhoza, Ms. Nyirantwari and Mr. Irankunda arrived, they sat at  desks inside the circle. Heyman accompanied them, but both Heyman and Doherty let the Rwandan and American students mostly lead the discussion,

The Rwandans began by speaking of their experiences at Agahozo-Shalom. “It's our home,” Umuhoza said of the village. “It is a wonderful home.”

Rwanda, a small landlocked country in central Africa, has been irrevocably changed by the 1994 genocide. “Always, our generation is affected by what happened because we lost our parents,” Umuhoza said. “But we say that God sent angels to help us like Anne Heyman, our lovely mother…. What they do for us when we first come is they heal our hearts.”

Nyirantwari spoke of how she and her siblings were left with no one to care for them after the genocide. “When we came to Agahozo-Shalom, we got many people that can help us like [a] mom, sisters,” she said.

Irankunda said the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village gives its students a semblance of normalcy in their lives. “Agahozo-Shalom is a nice home for us,” he said. “We get the chance to be in the family like other kids.” 

All three spoke positively of the period designated “family time” before bed in which the inhabitants of each cottage in the village sit and spend time with each other.

“We talk about how was our day,” Umuhoza said. “Before, we had no idea how sweet it was to sit as a family ... we joke, we sing, we do whatever we want.”

At the end of the session, the three Rwandan students sang and danced for the Americans, and the group took several photos together.

Woburn sophomore Christopher Power enjoyed the visit. “It was really cool,” he said. “It was fun to see how they lived.”

One of the Woburn students, Irene Kamikazi, moved to the US from Rwanda three years ago. “It was really great because there aren't a lot of Rwandan kids here,” she said.

Heyman would love to make a similar trip in the future with other Agahoza-Shalom students, she says.

“I think it's so important for the [Rwandans] to meet the [American high school students] and the kids to meet them,” she says. “For them to go really see [the world], experience it, touch it, and bring it home to their brothers and sisters, is an invaluable experience.”

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