Rwandan orphans find hope in village

May 24, 2012 - 2:25 AM
US Rwanda Orphans Dreams

This photo provided by DKC Public Relations, Marketing & Government Affairs, shows Innocent Nkundiye and Claude Irankunda, residents of the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in rural Rwanda, performing at the offices of Liquidnet Holdings in New York, on Tuesday, May 22, 2012. Their village is modeled after youth villages established in Israel to help World War II orphans. About 500 young people live in "families" _ 16 to a house, with a house mother or father, and big sister or brother. (AP Photo/DKC Public Relations, Marketing & Government Affairs)

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."