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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.

By Contributor / May 22, 2012

Students from the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda speak in front of a high school history class in Woburn, Mass.

Courtesy of the Cummings Foundation

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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.

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Staff writer

Molly Driscoll is a Books and the Culture staff writer.

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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.

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.

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