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Reclaiming Childhood

News & Features | October 26, 2009

In December 2008, The Agahozo Shalom Youth Village welcomed its first class of 125 students. These students require much more than a classroom to sit in and teachers to teach them.. ASYV is a special project of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, created to provide a home for orphans of Rwanda’s devastating genocide.

Agahozo is a Kinyarwanda word that means “a place where tears are dried,” and shalom is the Hebrew word for peace. The massacre of 15 years ago left the country’s youngest population particularly vulnerable. More often than not, children had lost one or both of their parents and many of their friends, leaving them alone and homeless in a world incapacitated by war. Today, over 1.2 million children still struggle to survive on their own, denied a childhood and the opportunity to grow and advance. In this bleak world, ASYV lends the warm light of education and family to a fortunate few.

The Agahozo Shalom Youth Village is located atop one of Rwanda’s many hills, affording its inhabitants an expansive view of the rolling landscapes and the endless sky. The founders purposefully situated the village this way, in keeping with their philosophy that “to see far is to go far.”

The AJJDC hosted eighteen Tufts students this summer, myself included. During our stay in the village, we witnessed how that philosophy had become reality. The village gives orphans of the genocide an opportunity to escape the hopeless grip of impoverished isolation and participate in many different educational and recreational activities. When we met the students only 6 months after they arrived at the village, they had already cultivated hopes of going to medical and law school, becoming teachers and politicians, learning many languages, and giving back to their country. The inspiration for the village came from Anne Heyman, a dedicated philanthropist and contributor to Tufts Hillel, who attended a lecture about the Rwandan genocide at Tufts in 2005. In the post-lecture discussion, the speaker noted that the biggest problem in post-conflict Rwanda was the enormous population of uncared for orphans, which constitutes 1.2 million of the total 9 million Rwandan citizens. Heyman recalled the Israeli model of “youth villages” that came about after the Holocaust when the country experienced a large influx of orphans and thought it could be an excellent strategy to implement in Rwanda. Shortly afterward she met with officials at the JDC, and with the help of local Rwandan officials, leaders at the Israeli youth village Yemin Orde, JDC officials and many other volunteers, Heyman’s vision became a reality within a few years.

Patrick Karuretwa, a Fletcher student who was a soldier in the Rwandan Patriotic Front during the genocide, believes that the ASYV initiative is definitely taking a step in the right direction. “The world can help Rwanda by investing in precisely what the genocide tried to destroy: human beings,” Karuretwa said. “And the best way to invest in human beings is through education.”

Though the ASYV high school program is comprehensive and challenging, education at the village reaches far beyond facts and figures. While at the village we joined the students in their afterschool activities, and engaged with them in activities including basketball, volleyball, soccer, basket weaving, guitar, traditional dance and music recording. The students learn many useful skills from their leaders and peers, but through psychological and social rehabilitation they may reclaim their childhoods.

ASYV is now prepared to accept its second class of 125 students, and will continue accepting new classes each year with an ultimate capacity for four classes. Though agricultural and technological initiatives have been taken to make the village sustainable, it currently relies upon outside resources to function. Tufts Hillel will be sponsoring a 5K run among other events to help fundraise.

Heather Blonsky, one of the student coordinators, said that the race is not just about raising money, but raising awareness of the village and its work.

“We want to get people to understand why we went to Rwanda, not just that we went, and why we continue to stay involved,” Blonsky said.

Ben Gittleson, who is the group’s student leader, explained how a large part of our trip is about giving back to the village that showed us how education can turn a life around.

“There are many trips available to college students that give them the opportunity to travel to a foreign country, but we want to show that this was much more than a tour,” Gittleson said. “We’re not just raising money for another cause but really trying to help these students we met who changed our lives. Eighteen of us were lucky enough to actually go to the village but we don’t want to limit the impact to the eighteen of us. We want to share our experience with all who are in our reach.”