Rwandan Widows Help Raise Orphans In A Village Determined To Heal

“You create a space where love helps heal these children."

Rwandan Widows Help Raise Orphans In A Village Determined To Heal

In the Rwamagana district of Rwanda, 28 mothers — many of them widows — are helping raise hundreds of orphaned teenagers at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV).

The mothers, according to Executive Director Jean Claude Nkulikiyimfura, are largely women who have lost their husbands and previously raised children into their teens. But Nkulikiyimfura is quick to explain that ASYV is not an orphanage: it's a community, a four-year village in the truest sense of the word. 


"Our philosophy started on two pillars: healing the heart and going back and doing community service," Nkulikiyimfura told A Plus. "Through our intervention for four years, they [students] come out of the village with a cause to trust in themselves and to have a dignified life."

Mama Agnes (right) with her student Marceline.  Courtesy of ASYV

Mama Marie Goretti Amurere, 60, one of the mothers at the village, was recently profiled by CNN and gave ASYV a moment in the global spotlight. Goretti's husband and three of her children were killed in the 1994 genocide in which there were 800,000 fatalities, but now she is the mother to dozens of girls at the ASYV village. 

More than 520 orphaned or vulnerable Rwandan teens live in the 144-acre, 30-home space, which was modeled after Israeli youth villages. ASYV was founded by Anne Heyman, a Jewish philanthropist who died in 2014. Heyman started the village after hearing a Rwandan survivor speak about the genocide in 2005. The speaker said the biggest need was care for the orphans, and Heyman thought of the Israeli youth villages built after the Holocaust. By 2008, ASYV was up and running.

"She got to know the Rwandan context and identified that this model was a model that made sense in Rwanda," Shiri Sandler, the managing director of ASYV, told A Plus. "The idea of communal living makes a lot of sense in Rwanda ... she was able, in a very short period of time, to get the Rwandan government to buy in, to buy the land in Rwanda, to start to build the village and to bring in the first class of the village." 

At ASYV, similar to some of the Israeli youth villages that inspired Heyman, teenagers are separated by gender and placed into homes with constant parental support from a mother, or mama. The mothers provide emotional care while the teens also attend school and are taught how to take care of their bodies with a good diet and medical care. Then, they get an opportunity to participate in sports and the arts after school. The holistic approach is the component that separates ASYV from an ordinary school or village.

Students from ASYV dancing.  Courtesy of Jeremy Blode / ASYV

Today, the orphans at ASYV are not orphans of the 1994 genocide, Sandler said. But just because their parents weren't killed in the genocide doesn't mean this generation isn't feeling the effects. Some of their parents are victims of the genocide in different ways than physical violence: they've been living in poverty as a result of the government fallout or fallen into addiction as a response to what they experienced and survived.

"Our goal is Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village can be a model for how to heal children and through healing, children heal a society that has dealt with societal trauma," Sandler said. "What this means to us is that other countries, other groups, can come to the village, learn about our work, learn about our ways and be able to take that back to their home communities."

ASYV hasn't just been innovative in its adoption of Israeli communal practices, or the way it's investing more money into each student than the Rwandan public schools. The village has also embraced a solar energy initiative. In 2015, the American solar company Gigawatt Global helped install 28,360 solar panels in the shape of the continent of Africa on the ASYV land. The solar field powers 15,000 homes and saves 12 million labor hours each year that are typically spent on gathering firewood, according to The Times of Israel. It's the largest solar field in East Africa.

So far, 725 students have already graduated from the village, which houses teenagers across four grades. Of those 725, about 70 percent go on to college, vocational training programs or straight into job market, according to Nkulikiyimfura. It's a cross-cultural success that has carried on the lessons of one community who experienced genocide to another.

"You create a space where love helps heal these children, heal their trauma, heal their hearts, heal their literal wounds," Sandler said. "And then they have the strength to go on and help heal their community and heal the world."


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