DRYING THE TEARS OF TEENS ORPHANED
BY THE 1994 GENOCIDE IN RWANDA AND ITS AFTERMATH
AND BUILDING THE FUTURE OF A COUNTRY
We have a village in which teachers have been taught how to teach the kids to think for themselves. …They will understand how important it is to take care of their community and that life isn’t just about survival.
“If you see far, you will go far”. These are the first words a visitor sees when entering the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda–words that are particularly meaningful for the 375 (soon to be 500) orphan residents of the Village – all teenagers aged 15-20 who were orphaned or otherwise traumatized by the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and its aftermath.
The 144 acre Village sits high on a hill in the eastern province of Kigali and one can indeed see miles into the distance to the lush vistas beyond.
Student living quarters at Agahozo-Shalom
This site selection was not serendipitous. Rather, it was intended by Founder, Anne Heyman, to impart the essential philosophy and message to all who enter: This is a place where life can begin again, a place of learning, family, and renewal, a place where the possibilities are as expansive as the horizon. Hence, the name, which could not be more fitting: Agahozo is a Kinyarwanda word for ‘place where tears are dried’, and Shalom, is the Hebrew word for “peace”, or as Heyman says, “a place to dry one’s tears and live in peace”.
Founder, Anne Heyman
South African native, Anne Heyman, is a former New York District Attorney, now living in Manhattan with her husband, Seth Merrin, and their three children. Her deep sense of social justice is manifest in her long time support of Jewish and other causes, both personally and through the Heyman-Merrin Family Foundation, which she directs. Merrin is Founder and CEO of the international brokerage firm, Liquidnet.
For the last six years, Heyman has focused like a laser on building and fundraising for Agahozo-Shalom. Her passion is palpable as she talks about the project.
It began with an initiative called Moral Voices, which the Heyman-Merrin Family Foundation sponsors with the Tufts University Hillel and the University of Pennsylvania Hillel. Each year, Moral Voices selects a different social justice topic on which a year-long program, including a lecture series, is based. In 2005, at Tufts University, the subject was the 1994 genocide in Rwanda (memorialized in the film, Hotel Rwanda) in which 800,000 people were brutally murdered in a the period of 100 days.
“THE BIGGEST PROBLEM IN RWANDA TODAY…IS THE ORPHANS”
At the pre-lecture dinner, Heyman asked the speaker, “What is the biggest problem facing Rwanda today?” He replied, ‘It’s the orphans. There are 1.2 million orphans in Rwanda, and because there is no systemic way to absorb them, there is no future for the country.’
The mental light bulb flashed: Heyman immediately thought of the youth villages in Israel, built in kibbutz like settings for the influx of orphans into the country after the Holocaust. These Youth Villages resolved the orphan problem in Israel; the children were taught to farm, were educated, and were given a home, and were integrated into Israeli society.
“Why not build a Youth Village “, Heyman thought, “similar to the successful Israeli model, to house these orphaned children, now well into their teens. Such a village would give them a place a place to feel safe, to become educated, to develop life skills, to become productive citizens. In addition, it would build capacity and revitalize Rwanda with an inflow of native citizens who would be willing and able to contribute as productive members of society. “
“THIS WAS SOMETHING I JUST COULDN’T LET GO”
As Heyman says, this was a simple idea that was a lot more complicated in reality. In fact, when she first broached the idea, it was met with a thunderous indifference. But, she says, “the idea kept nagging at me…I just couldn’t let it go”.
The Liquidnet Family School
Confident that she was on to something, Heyman swung into action, taking the role of Executive Producer and Director of the venture, even as she faced mega-challenges: First, she had never done anything like this, on this scale before. Moreover, she didn’t know anyone in Rwanda, nor did she have any idea whether the Israeli concept could be translated successfully into the Rwandan culture.
Many an activist would have been discouraged by the odds. But fueled by her compassion for the orphans though her natural connection to the Holocaust of WWII, and by the knowledge that she could make a real difference in their lives, Heyman called on her contacts and gathered support.
Her energy and excitement were like a force of nature. The pieces began to fall into place.
First, she arranged to meet with Dr. Chiam Peri, Founder and then Director of the Yemin Orde Youth Village. Today, Yemin Orde is a renowned institute that provides intensive educational intervention for Israel’s immigrant populations as well as for at risk youths.
Peri embraced her vision, shared his model, and recommended Ethiopian-Israeli volunteers – former orphans and graduates of Yemin Orde, now successfully integrated into Israeli society as productive citizens. She made multiple trips to Rwanda, asking everyone she knew for introductions to Ministers, NGOs and others who would become the essential team members who would “Rwanda-ize” the concept – advisors on education, health, and on the psychological welfare of the orphans. She found the site that would become the Village and the brilliant Rwandan architect who would build it. She flew back to Israel and Yemin Orde with the Rwandan who would eventually become the Executive Director of Agzhoso-Shalom.
The project picked up momentum. Back home, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), one of the oldest and most venerable Jewish humanitarian organizations, became a crucial partner, providing initial office space, key advising and the not-for-profit umbrella. With the JDC on board, Heyman and her husband reached out to friends and to the business community and raised $12 million in seed money. There was no stopping them now.
AGAHOZO-SHALOM WILL SOON HOUSE 500 ORPHANED TEENS WHO ARE TAUGHT HOW TO BE SUCCESSFUL
Today, Agahozo-Shalom has taken on a life of its own, and is home to more than 375 ( in December,500) orphaned Rwandan teens, who are finding a new world they had given up long ago. They are recommended by the mayors in each of the 30 districts in Rwanda, who are asked to identify ten orphans whom they consider to be the most vulnerable – children who are from abusive homes, who are without any adult supervision or resources, or who are suffering from some other type of trauma.
At the Community Center
The Village operates very much like an Israeli kibbutz and the impact is nothing short of miraculous!. There is a self sustaining farm which provides fruit, vegetables, eggs, peanuts and beans for all the residents, as well as income and a learning opportunity in methodology and management for the students. Each group in the village (separated by gender) lives together as a family, headed by a Rwandan “Mom”. There is a school, with all the latest technology for learning. The students are given a formal, if not a rigorous academic education, with required courses in science, math, computers, Economics, English, and Kinyarwandan. There are enrichment programs in music, the arts, and any type of sports activity you can think of. There are counselors and clinics to provide medical and psychological care, and help with life skills. There is a church, in which all religions are practiced freely. “The only rule they must follow, says Heyman, is that they cannot proselytize – they cannot attempt to convert anyone.”
At the community Center
There is also a requirement, deeply integrated into the program, that each child volunteer in some way, to give back to the outside world. Says Heyman, “a key tenant of the organization is the Jewish value of Tikkun Olam.” Tikun Olam is the Jewish mandate to give back, and is associated with social action and the pursuit of justice. In Hebrew, Tikkun Olam means literally, to “repair the world”.
She continues, “All the teachers must go through an intensive training period in which they are taught the importance of Tikkun Olam, and how to infuse the concept into the learning experience.”
Over the four year period the students learn to take this requirement very seriously and to incorporate it into their lives. The goal is to produce self sufficient, productive and even entrepreneurial citizens, with a clear sense of who they are, and how they can make a positive contribution to Rwandan society and culture.
Working with Computers
A SYSTEMIC SOLUTION TO THE “ORPHAN PROBLEM”
“The important thing that people need to know about Agahozo-Shalom, says Heymen, is that there is a solution to the orphan problem. The problems of Africa require systemic change. You have to introduce new ideas, you have to present alternative ways to view the world, and that is not an easy or a short process.
“People often question the amount of money it costs to build (and maintain) this village. We have a village that will be there 60 years from now. We have a village in which teachers have been taught how to teach the kids to think for themselves. We will be graduating kids who are entrepreneurial in thinking and ability. They will understand how important it is to take care of their community and that life isn’t just about survival. This is a long and expensive process. We are looking at the systemic solution.”
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
“There are so many ways to get involved,” says Heymen. “We need worldwide support in order to offer the quality of education and the residential living experience that is now in place. We’re always looking for people who want to volunteer, help us raise money, to fundraise, to enlarge our community of donors.
“In addition, we have service learning programs for college students – we organize trips for college students and other groups who want to learn more about Agahozo-Shalom. There is a long-term volunteer program as well.
Be sure to check the website for opportunities and ideas on how to engage with us.
The Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, 1375 Broadway
New York, NY 10018