Rwandan orphans find hope in village

May 24, 2012, 6:16 AM

Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) – From a teenager who was a month old when her parents were killed in Rwanda’s genocide to a young man inspired to become a doctor, hundreds of orphans have found hope for the future in a special village outside the Rwandan capital.

Now, the South African-born, New York woman who founded Agahozo Shalom hopes the village can be a model for orphans around Rwanda and the rest of the world. Anne Heyman brought five of the young people from the village to New York this week, where they helped raise money and met with Rwanda’s U.N. Ambassador Eugene-Richard Gasana.

“The dream is that others will come and see what we are doing and understand that there is a systemic solution to the orphan problem that plagues much of the developing world,” Heyman said.

Heyman got the idea for the village at a 2005 dinner when she and her husband were seated at a table with Paul Rusesabagina, the Rwandan hotel manager made famous in the movie “Hotel Rwanda” for trying to protect Tutsis and moderate Hutus targeted in the 1994 slaughter of at least 500,000 people.

Her husband asked Rusesabagina what Rwanda’s biggest problem was.

Orphans, he replied.

Heyman, a former New York assistant district attorney and mother of three, thought of the thousands of Jewish children orphaned by the Holocaust who were resettled in youth villages in Israel. She believed that model could work in Rwanda, where there are more than 610,000 orphans, including 95,000 orphaned by the genocide, according to the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF.

So after that dinner conversation, Heyman started raising money and making contacts in Rwanda and Israel. She founded Agahozo Shalom, which combines the Kinyarwanda word agahoza meaning “tears are dried” with the Hebrew word shalom which means “peace.”

She collected donations from Liquidnet Holdings, the electronic stock-trading firm founded by her husband Seth Merrin, and other foundations, companies and individuals. With $12 million and help from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the first 125 high school students arrived at the 144-acre (58-hectare) village in January 2009.

The village, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the capital Kigali, is now home to 500 young people who live in “families” _ 16 to a house, with a house mother or father, and big sister or brother. They get health care and plenty of emotional support, Heyman said.

Heyman’s goal is to integrate the orphans into a community, giving them families and individual attention as well as a full school curriculum including music, art and sports. They are expected to use the education and skills they are learning to help other struggling Rwandans, whether by building houses, growing crops or teaching.

“The philosophy of how we do things is really the same for every orphan in the world,” Heyman said, “and so whether the kids are orphaned by AIDS, conflict, genocide, they’ve been abandoned by the world, the solution is really the same.”

Gasana, the Rwandan ambassador, suggested that Heyman partner with UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency.

“It’s a good model I think to sell everywhere in the world,” he said.

In New York, the young Rwandans performed music at a fundraiser that brought in about $500,000 on Monday, Heyman said.

To select new members of the village, Heyman said Agahozo Shalom sends letters to Rwanda’s mayors asking them to identify 10 orphans who meet specific criteria, all based on vulnerability, including a lack food or shelter or someone to take care of them and emotional problems. There is no medical or academic testing, she said.

Sitting around a table in the ambassador’s conference room, the five young people talked about their difficult lives before going to Agahozo Shalom village.

Peace Grace Muhizi Umutesi, 18, lost both her parents to the genocide when she was a month old. She then lived with her aunt, who has five children, for 10 years. The family was so poor that sometimes they missed meals. Nobody had ever asked her what she wanted for her future until she was interviewed by Agahozo Shalom.

“I didn’t have any dream in me. I was just studying for studying, not studying for being someone in the future,” she said.

Now she is singing, and studying math, economics and computers. She dreams of being a famous singer and a software engineer.

“They told us `if you see far you will go far’. … That’s made me strong,” she said.

She said Agahozo Shalom “is like my family” and added: “I feel very powerful and I know that if something is good it is wonderful and if it goes wrong it is an experience.”

Pascasie Nyirantwari, 21, who lost her father in the genocide and her mother to illness seven years later, said she had no hope for the future when she came to the village from an orphanage. She will be part of the village’s first high school graduating class in November and wants to continue singing and acting and study interior design.

“Now I have a hope for tomorrow,” she said.

Innocent Nkundiye, 19, also lost his father in the genocide and his mother struggled to raise him and his brother. He went to school but didn’t do well. Now, he’s studying math and science and wants to be a doctor. He said that when the local physician in his district died, the women cried because they didn’t know who would take care of them when they got pregnant.

“So because of that, I got a dream,” Innocent said. “Maybe I can change something, and I can solve these problems … and I said I have first of all to do something that can make me a doctor. So I chose math, biology and chemistry to study _ and I will be a doctor.”

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

United States News

A staff of Rappler monitors as Filipino journalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa talks d...
Associated Press

Ressa says Philippine courts to decide Rappler closure order

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa said her Rappler news website was operating “business as usual” Wednesday and would let Philippine courts decide on a government order to close the outlet critical of the outgoing Duterte administration and its deadly drug crackdown. The Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission on Tuesday affirmed […]
3 hours ago
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg arrives for a NATO summit in Madrid, Spain on Wednesday, Ju...
Associated Press

NATO chief: Alliance faces biggest challenge since WWII

MADRID (AP) — NATO leaders were sitting down Wednesday to try to turn an urgent sense of purpose triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine into action — and to patch up any cracks in their unity over money and mission. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance was meeting in Madrid “in the midst of the […]
3 hours ago
France's President Emmanuel Macron, right, and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands ...
Associated Press

Live updates | Biden says US boosting its military in Europe

MADRID (AP) — The Latest on the NATO summit in Madrid: ___ U.S. President Joe Biden says America’s military presence in Europe is about to get bigger, as NATO responds to the threat from Moscow following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Biden says the U.S. is establishing a permanent headquarters in Poland, sending two additional F-35 […]
3 hours ago
A person wearing a protective mask walks in front of an electronic stock board showing Japan's Nikk...
Associated Press

World shares lower ahead of U.S. 1Q economic growth report

BANGKOK (AP) — Shares slipped Wednesday in Europe and Asia ahead of the latest update on U.S. economic growth, while oil prices were lower. The Commerce Department was due to release a report on first-quarter gross domestic product later in the day. Investors worried by uncertainty over inflation, rising interest rates and the potential for […]
3 hours ago
Associated Press

Northern California wildfire threatens 500 buildings

BRIDGEPORT, Calif. (AP) — A wildfire that erupted in Northern California forced evacuations as it threatened about 500 homes and other buildings Tuesday, authorities said. The Rices Fire erupted at around 2 p.m. near the Yuba River in Nevada County and had spread to more than 500 acres (202 hectares) by nightfall, said Unit Chief […]
1 day ago
Sponsored Content by

BRIDGEPORT, Calif. (AP) — A wildfire that erupted in Northern California forced evacuations as it threatened about 500 homes and other buildings Tuesday, authorities said. The Rices Fire erupted at around 2 p.m. near the Yuba River in Nevada County and had spread to more than 500 acres (202 hectares) by nightfall, said Unit Chief […]

Sponsored Articles

Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Most plumbing problems can be fixed with regular maintenance

Instead of waiting for a problem to happen, experts suggest getting a head start on your plumbing maintenance.
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Update your child’s vaccines before kindergarten

So, your little one starts kindergarten soon. How exciting! You still have a few months before the school year starts, so now’s the time to make sure students-to-be have the vaccines needed to stay safe as they head into a new chapter of life.
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

ADHS mobile program brings COVID-19 vaccines and boosters to Arizonans

The Arizona Department of Health Services and partner agencies are providing even more widespread availability by making COVID-19 vaccines available in neighborhoods through trusted community partners.
Rwandan orphans find hope in village