In 2005, Anne Heyman, a South African-born former lawyer for the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, sat at a table with a Rwandan genocide survivor at a fundraiser and asked him, “What is the biggest problem facing Rwanda today?”
“The orphans,” he told her. “In a population of 11 million, we have over 1 million orphans.”
And so Heyman had an idea: bring the Israeli Youth Village model to Rwanda.
In the 1930s and 1940s, tens of thousands of Jewish children and teenagers fled the Nazis. Many landed in what would eventually become Israel, where they were welcomed into a system of residential communities called Youth Villages. And so in the mid-2000s, Heyman believed a new youth village system could help solve an African orphan crisis.
Specifically, the philanthropist envisioned a sustainable, Rwandan run, Youth Village system for the country’s most vulnerable population: orphaned teenagers. “There were plenty of organizations attempting to take care of the babies,” she told me in 2014. “But who was looking after them when they were teenagers? I knew that was the age group that needed to be targeted.”
Heyman and her husband, Seth Merrin, raised $12 million to start the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village (ASYV). Agahozo means “a place where tears are dried” in Kinyarwanda, and Shalom means peace in Hebrew.
The village broke ground in 2007. On October 19, 2017, the village’s tenth anniversary, they graduated their fifth class. Heyman died in 2014, at age 52, from a fall from a horse in the U.S.
Today, a lush green garden surrounds a mango tree where Heyman had first signed the deed for the village’s property. Young students clad in orange and green polo shirts meander through circular rows of red-roofed homes toward their school, which is perched on the highest point in the village. The community is currently home to more than 500 teenagers, from all 30 districts of Rwanda.
ASYV maintains a structure based on a family. Each grade contains “families” of students split up by gender. Each family receives a “Mama” (a Rwandan educator who lives in the house with them), a “big brother” or “big sister” (a Rwandan guidance counselor who visits weekly), and a foreign “cousin” volunteer who stays for a year to teach a certain set of skills. Administrative staff are referred to as “Aunts” and “Uncles.” The school’s teachers live among the students. The village recruits students from all over the country, taking 125 each year.
In 2014, I started a photo and video editing program in the village and ran a weekly TV club, where the students produced their own news program. The so-called ASYV Media Lab has since taken on new life, and now nearly all of the online content presented by the village is generated by students.
“Many people call us orphans but this time we are no longer orphans, we have a home,” said Emmanuel Nkund’unkundiye at the first graduation ceremony. Nkund’unkuniye will graduate from the University of Pennsylvania next year. Graduates of the village have accepted scholarships to study abroad to such universities as Brown, University of British Columbia, and McGill.
The village envisions itself a model for Rwandan society. This holistic learning environment hopes to embody the reconciliation that has occurred in the once war-torn nation. Students live together in groups of mixed ethnicities, though the topic is considered taboo.
“Of course, I know that some of my brothers are born from parents who could have been killers in the genocide,” said one student who wished to remain nameless due to the sensitivity of the conversation. “But why should we punish them for crimes they did not commit? I don’t want to know what their parents did. I only see them as my brothers and sisters.”
Alumni Find Success
Alumni from the village, like Rosine Mwiseneza, have begun to shape their own future, and that of the country itself. Upon graduating from ASYV, Mwiseneza went to study at Kepler, a vocational technology institute, and developed a new method of automated irrigation while on a job selling solar equipment. When she spoke to the farmers, the budding engineer told me, “I put myself in their shoes. I started to listen to the pain of drought and minimal production. I went home each day and kept notes tallying each problem the farmers had. I learned how to keep a journal from one of the volunteers in ASYV.”
The young engineer was made aware of the Miss Geek Competition with only one day to complete her application before the deadline. “I took my notes and rephrased them to address the problems. I found myself in the top five. We had a boot camp and on pitching day I was announced the winner of the 2016 prize.”
She calls her idea an “automatic irrigation system with precision agriculture.” Mwiseneza installs sensors on a farm to measure soil moisture and other variables. Her software then provides advice to the farmer on when, where, and how much water to apply to the crops. This helps them get the most out of limited water. The data can be accessed online or through a mobile app.
Many farmers in Rwanda, as in many African countries, tend to grow food mostly only during the rainy months. But Mwiseneza hopes to extend the growing season through increased efficiency, helping provide more food for her country—whose population is booming.
The village has also leased property to Gigawatt Energy to build East Africa’s first large-scale solar field. The goal is increasing Rwanda’s energy capacity by six percent, plus teaching the next generation of green energy workers.
Agahozo Shalom is only one youth village. However, despite robust 5.9 percent economic growth in 2016, there are still hundreds of thousands of youth at risk from poverty in Rwanda. In response, the Rwandan government has been taking note of ASYV’s success, and has sent representatives to their graduation ceremonies, including President Paul Kagame. A series of government officials have pledged to support ASYV and more projects like it should they be developed.
Ari Beser is a digital storyteller and former Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow who volunteered at ASYV in Rwanda in 2014.