The images, conversations and emotions from my visit to Rwanda a few weeks ago continue to race through my brain. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 and its fallout was vividly told in all it’s brutality at the Kigali Genocide Memorial where they are still burying bodies as they continue to discover the remains of those who have been murdered.
One of the biggest fallouts of the genocide was orphans – 400,000 of them. With over 60 percent of the country under 20 years old today – orphans remain a huge issue there.
The country has been plagued with the burden of finding families for so many orphans. Before the genocide, Rwandan orphanages were virtually unheard of.
A few of us from JDC, the organization I was traveling with, went for an overnight to a youth village an hour north of the capital of Kigali. The JDC provides emergency relief and long-term development assistance worldwide and was instrumental in supporting the vision of Anne Heyman who created this youth village in 2009.
As I write, the faces and voices of the orphans at the Village are in the forefront of my thoughts. . I am back at home thinking of what’s next for these kids that I met.
The images are strong:
Smiling dark faces, shiny white teeth, twinkling eyes of curiosity.
Colorful clothes and braided full heads of hair.
Teenagers singing rap about what’s next, chanting in a chorus of gratitude for all they have received and plan to give back.
Kind hellos and sweet thank yous and lots and lots of sharing.
English speaking with gorgeous accents full of appreciation.
A spring in their step, a touch of the arm – a full on hug – no fear of physical closeness – no lack of love.
I hear them repeat over and over one of their key core values:
“No Love – No Life”
This is the chant I sing in my warm shower back home.
This is the chant that they sing in their village.
This village is Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village — ASYV.
Agahozo is the Kinyarwanda word for “a place where tears are dried,” and Shalom is Hebrew for “live in peace.”
The founder and creator of ASYV, Anne Heyman died last year, which was devastating to these orphans. They refer to her as “our grandmother.” We felt her presence everywhere during our stay; the kids embrace her moral code and core values. Her mission lives on dynamically through them. They say, “Our grandmother Anne Heyman taught us to learn from yesterday and make a plan for tomorrow.”
When watching Anne Heyman’s video, it becomes immediately clear you are listening to a visionary. Anne’s work shows us what it means to make real change in peoples lives and to give them hope. Anne walks the Ghandhi walk embodying the saying “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I cried as I listened to her speak of her vision and watched the clip of how she made it happen. It is impossible not to reach for my checkbook.
This village houses 500 kids. The story of how they are invited in and educated there was told to us by their Director JC – a mild mannered towering man whose hard work, intelligence and understanding is a gift to all who meet him. We sat under a mango tree at the village’s center and listened, mesmerized by the story of this village.
(This well thought out village was replicated from a youth village in Israel – Yemin Orde, which Anne Heyman knew of and was the prototype and inspiration for ASYV).
Teenagers, who are the most vulnerable, (having lost one or both parents, and also fitting other criteria for vulnerability) are invited to live there full time while being schooled. The process of finding them and vetting them takes months. Once there, they live in houses with their peers. Each of the houses has a “mother”. No one goes hungry in this village and all are embraced and challenged to learn.
Together they learn to believe again, together they are given the tools for study, and they embrace a belief system knowing that they can and will have a full life despite their devastating beginnings.
At ASYV I met a 19 year old named Ornella. I heard her on stage our first night reading a love poem to her classmates in the village’s amphitheater. It was moving, articulate and smart. The next day, we spent the entire day together sharing stories.
Ornella is on the debating team at ASYV. She is incredibly smart and funny and positive. She and her debating partner also from the Village came in first place in the East Africa National Debates. This all came together for her at ASYV. The story of the debates is beautifully captured by a JDC volunteer (I think this is written by Rachel who we met but I can’t find the author’s name on the blog). She worked at the village for one year.
Ornella’s early story is not so different from many Rwandan teenagers at ASYV. She came from a home in the city of Kigali where she lived with her 15 cousins and siblings. Ornella’s mom died of breast cancer and her amazing aunt and uncle took her in. This is where ASYV found her.
Ornella has dreams of going to college in America. She has one year left before she graduates from ASYV and gets her high school diploma but she is on a great track. The expense of college will be huge – but the village has found a way through their support network to help these kids. It’s amazing what a difference this place has made in Ornella’s life and so many others.
December is a time of reflection for so many of us — a time when we decide programs/charities we want to support. My visit couldn’t have come at a better time. It feels good to know that I can help make a difference in these kids’ lives.
To understand how this village has changed the lives of thousands of kids and is making it’s mark, visiting their website is a great way to connect with the magic that is happening there.
ASYV relies on donations to continue their work. Their mission is –“To enable orphaned and vulnerable youth to realize their maximum potential by providing them with a safe and secure living environment, health care, education and necessary life skills. Education and service are used to model and create socially responsible citizens in Rwanda and around the world”
If you would like to be part of these kids next steps and lend your support here is the link to donate: