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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.

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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.

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Staff writer

Molly Driscoll is a Books and the Culture staff writer.

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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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