Back to School Inspires Rwanda’s Youngest to See Far

September 5, 2012


“If you see far, you will go far,” is the first thing a teen orphan will hear when they climb atop the mountain peak in Rwamagana, Rwanda to join the community of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV). Home to 500 students from each of Rwanda’s 30 regions, the village is a safe-haven that offers education, family, and hope for the future to young people who had lost everything in the country’s genocide and its aftermath.

Pascasie, 22, is in the first class graduating from ASYV this year. During the 1994 genocide she lost her father and three of her siblings. Her older brother, younger sister, and mother survived—but then her mom died of a terminal illness in 2001. The three siblings remained together in a child-headed household until 2003 when Pascasie and her younger sister were taken to an orphanage in Kigali, while their elder brother stayed behind to take care of their family home.

Four years ago Pascasie joined the inaugural class of 125 students at ASYV, and began to build a second family with the other teens and the staff who take care of them around the clock.

“Before coming to ASYV, I felt that I had no future and I had no interest in life. Here I found a new family and someone to call ‘Mum’ again,” Pascasie says. “This is a place of healing for us all.”

At ASYV young people are assisted by “family moms,” many of whom lost family members in the genocide, as well as mental health counselors, teachers, and volunteers who all work together to help them heal the self and the heart (tikkun halev) and to empower them to heal the world by helping others (tikkun olam).

Modeled after Yemin Orde and the Israeli youth villages that served children who had lost their parents in the Holocaust, ASYV was founded as a special project of JDC, built in partnership with the village founder Anne Heyman. Jewish values are the foundation of this unique community, as are overcoming trauma and imagining a bright future.

“The village model takes the best that we’ve been a part of as a Jewish people and shares it with another nation, Rwanda, which is facing the challenges of raising over one million orphans,” explains William Recant, Assistant Executive Vice President at JDC who partnered on the project’s construction from the beginning. Five years after the “campus” groundbreaking, ASYV includes 32 group homes, a high school, science and computer labs, land for organic farming, a reforestation program, dining hall, counseling and medical facilities, and recreational fields. This comprehensive living and learning community provides security, structure, and unconditional support for young people who desperately need a healing environment.

While JDC phased out of ASYV in 2011 after helping ensure the village would operate under its own 501(c)(3) status, JDC Entwine’s Jewish Service Corps fellows volunteer on the campus, continuing the connection between ASYV’s students and Jewish young adults.

“The staff are our parents and we are all brothers and sisters … we are one another’s dreams of having families again coming true,” says Pascasie’s classmate Liliane, 20. “We regularly sit together for ‘family time’ and everyone partakes in discussions about their day, personal issues, and hardships we are facing. It is a way to learn about one another, build respect, and develop a sense of shared responsibility. I can’t be your sister if I don’t know your past, or your current problems.”

Pascasie adds: “Agahozo-Shalom is an inspiring place. From day one I felt a change in my life. I discovered my love for music, traditional art, and culture. I found my passion for singing and got to perform last year at a ceremony hosted by President Kagame. Today I feel confident, valuable, and able to accomplish my dreams.”

Peace Grace, 18, agrees. She lost both parents in the civil war and was raised by her aunt among her 5 cousins. “Before coming to Agahozo life was very difficult for me; my aunt was poor and sometimes we went without meals.” Then she came to ASYV.

“When I came here my life changed completely because I was given a chance to become someone valuable. This is a special place where you start to dream about the future from the first day,” says Peace Grace, who wants to become a software engineer and promote the cause of women in development. “I want to use my voice to build hope for disadvantaged people. I see myself becoming someone very important in society and helping other people overcome their challenges. ASYV has opened our minds and we have started to see far and work to realize our visions.”

Sign Up for JDC Voices Stories