Rwanda’s horrific 1994 genocide landed in the forefront of many American minds with the release of the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda, a film chronicling the mass murder. Anne Heyman, a South African living in New York, first learned of the genocide a year later. Her reaction was a common one: what about the orphans? Unlike most people, however, Heyman decided to help the kids whose parents had been lost years earlier.
There is currently no systemic solution to Rwanda’s orphan problem. But Heyman and her colleagues are trying to create one with the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, a residential community for orphaned high school students in rural Rwanda. The community is based on the youth villages created by Israel for orphans of the Holocaust. “Israel [dealt with] a genocide, but they don’t have an orphan problem today. This is a system for mainstreaming these kids and getting them back into society,” says Heyman.
Heyman, a lawyer by training, pitched her idea to a number of organizations. All of them thought it was a good idea, but no one wanted to take it on. So she did it herself. Heyman tapped the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to act as a fiscal sponsor while the organization got on its feet, brought on coworkers and a Rwandan advisory group, and in 2008, Agahozo-Shalom accepted its first group of 125 kids (there are 500 there currently).
The kids come from all over the country. Agahozo-Shalom takes four orphans from each district in Rwanda (there are 30 districts) to participate in the program. But, Heyman stresses, this is not a boarding school: the kids wake up in a home–16 students live in each house with a “mom” and big brother or big sister–and the people who teach them aren’t ones who live with them. “Their parents and brothers and sisters are advocates for [the kids],” says Heyman.
A typical day goes something like this: The kids wake up at 6:30, start their day at 7:10 with breakfast in a communal dining hall, and stay in school until two. After that, they come down for lunch (the school is up on a hill), and depending on the day, have different activities to take part in. The first two years, the students do enrichment programs in art, music, sports, and science. Every term they have to do one art and one sport, and every semester they switch so they are exposed to a wide variety of activities. The second two years, the kids focus on professional skills.
Even with rigorous training, there’s no guarantee that the majority of Agahozo-Shalom kids will go to college–only 5% of students in Rwanda do. “Many of the kids will qualify to get into a university, but the question becomes who will pay,” says Heyman, “We teach them how to apply for scholarships.”
Agahozo-Shalom also teaches the students how to make enough money if they do end up going to school, with classes in hospitality, IT and computer skills, and modern agriculture. The first class at the village graduates in November–the end of the Rwandan school year.
The village’s financial future isn’t in jeopardy, but Heyman is constantly fundraising. “It’s me running around talking to people. That’s how we’re being funded,” she says.
Heyman hopes that her model will be adopted by others who want to create similar youth villages. “We can make the orphan problem go away,” she says.