When Anne Heyman, a South African-born lawyer for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, spoke with a Rwandan genocide survivor in 2005, she asked him a simple question. That was, “What is the biggest problem facing Rwanda today?” His answer was surprising: “The orphans. In a population of 11 million, we have over 1 million orphans.” This awakening prompted the good Samaritan to found a Rwandan run Youth Village.
The concept is inspired by the Youth Villages which were created to welcome the tens of thousands of Jewish children and teenagers who fled the Nazis. Heyman believed something similar could be created for the children of Rwanda — and she was right.
Heyman didn’t want to just create the village, she wanted to make it sustainable, as well. She also gave special focus to helping orphaned teenagers. “There were plenty of organizations attempting to take care of the babies, she said in 2014. “But who was looking after them when they were teenagers? I knew that was the age group that needed to be targeted.”
With the help of her husband, Seth Merrin, Heyman went on to raise $12 million to start the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village (ASYV). As National Geographic reports, Agahozo means “a place where tears are dried.” In Kinyarwanda. Shalom means “peace” in Hebrew.
Construction began in 2007. Recently, on October 19, 2017, the village celebrated its tenth university — and its fifth graduated class. Though Heyman died, aged 52, from a horse riding accident in 2014, her legacy lives on. Most importantly, the work she started in Rwanda continues to gain traction.
Today, ASYV is home to more than 500 teenagers from all 30 districts of Rwanda. Fruit trees abound, and visitors can see young students wearing orange and green polo shirts meandering through rows of red-roofed homes. To ensure all of the kids and teenagers thrive, ASYV maintains a structure based on family.
Each “family” of students is split up by gender. A “Mama” (a Rwandan guidance counselor) is assigned to each group, as is a “big brother” or “big sister” (Rwandan guidance counselor, visits once per week). For a year at a time, a foreign “cousin” will stay to help teach a certain set of skills. Even the administrative staff are included in the family structure; they are referred to as “aunts” and “uncles.”
A Village Health and Wellness Center is available for all “family members” to benefit from. There, people can learn about topics like HIV/AIDS, malaria prevention, and diet. Life Enrichment programs help the kids get involved in athletics and the art.
The farm is a centerpiece to many, as it provides 30 percent of the village’s food. There’s even an 8.5-megawatt solar plant on the village grounds. ASYV says “it is the first sub-Saharan grid-connected solar project, and provides electricity to nearly 10 percent of Rwanda.”
One of the Youth Village’s main goals is to express reconciliation in Rwanda. A student, who preferred to remain nameless, told National Geographic, “Of course, I know that some of my brothers are born from parents who could have been killers in the genocide. But why should we punish them for crimes they did not commit? I don’t want to know what their parents did. I only see them as my brothers and sisters.”
It’s been ten years since the Youth Village was founded. In that time, many students have graduated and gone on to pursue higher education, studying at schools such as Brown University and the University of Pennsylvania. As student Emmanuel Nkund’unkundiye said at the ASYV’s first graduation ceremony, “Many people call us orphans but this time we are no longer orphans, we have a home.”
Source: National Geographic