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At Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, Anne Heyman’s legacy lives on

Anne Heyman (Courtesy of DOROT)
Anne Heyman (Courtesy of DOROT)

AGAHOZO-SHALOM YOUTH VILLAGE, Rwanda (JTA) – Anne Heyman’s death during a horse-riding competition in Palm Beach, Fla., on Jan. 31 shocked and devastated many in the Jewish world.

But it was Heyman’s work in Rwanda that so many of her admirers will remember most.

A former assistant district attorney in Manhattan who made a career shift to philanthropy around the time she began having children, Heyman learned during a visit to the Tufts University Hillel in 2005 about children who were left without parents by the Rwandan genocide.

Inspired to do something to help, Heyman set about establishing a youth village for the orphans modeled on Yemin Orde, the Israeli youth village set up for children who survived the Holocaust.

The idea behind the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, located in a rural area about an hour from the Rwandan capital of Kigali, was to provide the orphans of the genocide with an enclosed, nurturing environment where they could grow up while recovering from their trauma. The word “agahozo” comes from the local expression for drying tears.

Heyman, who had three children of her own, didn’t just raise millions of dollars in funding for the village. She spent as much time as she could at Agahozo-Shalom, visiting several times a year.

“Every day she thought of those kids, every time I talked to her,” Laurie Franz, a friend and youth village board member, told JTA on Monday before Heyman’s funeral at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York. “She believed in helping people. She had the biggest heart of anybody I know, and she did it continually, honestly and with so much passion. She was intelligent and beautiful and wise and kind.”

When news of her sudden death at age 52 reached the village, Rwandan Youth Minister Jean P. Nsengimana wrote on Twitter that the village “just lost a mother.”

Many of the kids at Agahozo-Shalom can hardly remember their biological mothers.

Twenty years ago, their mothers and fathers were demonized in a racist campaign, their siblings rounded up, their families and friends killed by machetes, clubs and guns as their country was torn apart in genocidal brutality.

In many cases they grew up with one parent or no parents, in the care of an older brother, sister, cousin or guardian. Some have been abused, some abandoned, many too poor to afford basic necessities.

Now the 500 students at Agahozo-Shalom, 15- to 21-year-olds who in some way were hurt by Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, live in a carefully planned refuge amid a stunning landscape in the country’s center. They study biology, math, history, economics, language and literature in a full-service high school. In the afternoons they paint or play soccer, record gospel music or do electrical work.

At night they sit with more than a dozen peers they call “brother” and “sister” and talk about their lives. The surrogate families, comprised of groups of 16 boys or girls in the same grade, each in care of a house “mama” and staff member who act as a big sibling or cousin, are named after inspirational figures such as Mother Teresa, Benazir Bhutto and George Washington.

The goal of Agahozo-Shalom — where the children live in modern homes with running water, electricity and plumbing, have access to a large staff of teachers to social workers, and can spend their leisure time in green fields, a farm or a grove of banana trees — is to take high schoolers far from their trauma so that they may begin to confront it and help their country heal.

“They find themselves, they learn to know about themselves, they learn that they have passions,” Jean-Claude Nkulikiyimfura, the village director, told JTA during an interview in the village two weeks ago. “They realize, ‘I’m not the only one with problems. Someone else has a problem and I could be a solution to that problem.’ ”

Even though most of its residents are Christian, the village has something of a Jewish character. Students speak of “tikkun olam” projects in the surrounding community, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee sends fellows to work there for a year and Yemin Orde, in Israel, often is talked about as a model.

“The students who know about the Holocaust really relate to Jews here,” said Arielle Sokolof, a JDC fellow from New York who began working at the village in December. “I think it’s an important Jewish value to teach others and learn from others.”

At Agahozo-Shalom, the kids’ days are programmed from start to finish. They rise as early as 5:30 to clean their houses or attend sports practice. After breakfast they attend school from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., then comes lunch followed by science, art, sports or, for older children, technical training. At the end of the day they have their homework and a range of extracurricular activities, from planning solutions to village problems to film discussions and environmental projects.

“If a kid is in sports, you can see not only how a kid is throwing a ball but how he can become happy with other kids,” said Isa Sikubwabo, the village’s director of education, training and philosophy. “The kid can have a time when he can discuss, he can smile.”

One late afternoon last month, Yael Zaken, an American-born Israeli, stood teaching a group of students about the artistic movement of abstract expressionism, the way an image can convey an emotion rather than a realistic scene. Surrounded by paintings by past and present students, she told JTA that art can help students work through their pain, even though some use the opportunity to draw machetes or guns.

“I talked to them about using freedom of expression as a cathartic tool,” Zaken said. “Slowly they started to draw things in their mind. It saddens me, but it’s a wonderful moment to start talking about what they experienced.”

The village encourages its students to attend university after graduation, and a handful now are at colleges in North America. Kagame Jeaa, who lost seven siblings in the genocide and graduated from Agahozo-Shalom in 2012, is working at the village this year and will attend McGill University in Montreal in the fall.

“There’s nothing that makes me happy more than seeing a kid rising to the peak of his potential,” Jeaa said. “When you’re in the process, it’s really hard to recognize what’s going on. I really enjoy giving them advice as someone who passed through the journey they’re starting.”

First-year student Oscar Murwanashyaka, 19, says he connected quickly with the village’s supportive atmosphere. Lanky and enthusiastic, Murwanashyaka says he wants to produce gospel music or start a business after he graduates.

“I have my mom and my cousin and my big brother,” he said, referring to the staff members who guide his family of 16 boys. “Everyone shares the program in unity. If I know something, I share it with others.”

Twenty years since the genocide, very few of today’s students experienced its horrors firsthand. But Nkulikiyimfura, the village director, says that effects of violence in subsequent years and the genocide’s legacy have rendered the village helpful even to younger children. Agahozo-Shalom is working with Rwanda’s Education Ministry to explore replicating the village’s model elsewhere in the country.

“It’s amazing, once you give them attention, the greatness that can come out of a kid,” Nkulikiyimfura said. “We’re not trying to create the next president of Rwanda. We’re trying to create the next good citizen who cares for his family, has a family and cares for his community.”

(JTA Staff in New York contributed to this report.)