When applying to serve as a year-long fellow back in 2013, I was relatively clueless to the power of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village.
On a snowy mid December day, I joined my cohort of fellows for orientation in New York and clearly remember conversations with past cousins who spoke excitedly of the "magical vibe" within the Village. I can recall listening to founder Anne Heyman talk with unreserved passion and enthusiasm about the inspiring stories that were already unfolding since its inception five years previously.
To be entirely truthful, I wondered if such a place could really exist. Being a typically sceptical Brit, surely the journey I was about to embark on was being embellished. The Village was portrayed as a pioneering, almost utopian society and it was tough for me to believe the hype.
The day after arriving in Rwanda, my cohort received a warm welcome from then HR Director, Celine Uwineza, and Grade Coordinator, Longin Kubwimana. We were later introduced to ASYV Senior 5 students Jacky Tuyisenge and Eunice Umubyeyi. It was after meeting the two girls that my initial doubts began to diminish.
I'd obviously never met either of these young women before they arrived at Agahozo-Shalom, but I was genuinely staggered by their alacrity, confidence, and humility. I recall thinking Jacky was humouring me when she asked if I'd like her to sing me a song whilst being transported around Kigali. When I dubiously replied, "sure, why not?", she preceded to belt out a Whitney Houston classic without a care in the world.
Upon meeting my new family, I began to realise the full impact of ASYV. On December 28th, fifteen timid, scared looking teenage boys (plus Oscar Murwanashyaka who was anything but) waved goodbye to their guardians and officially became students and residents of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. The demeanour of these boys in contrast with that of the two Senior 5 girls I'd met a couple of days earlier was striking.
The first few weeks with the family were a little awkward. You could literally hear the night chorus of frogs and crickets with most of the boys lacking the confidence to speak during Family Time. Some began to emerge from their shells, but others remained mostly silent unless prompted to speak about their thoughts and feelings. When asked to talk about their day, the general answer would be something along the lines of, "For me, my day was so good. Thank you." Others would refer to their day as, "somehow" (meaning it was okay), and Oscar would spend around half an hour meticulously going over every small event from brushing his teeth to tying his shoelaces.
With time, I began to witness amazing transformations. The healing combination of formal and informal education within a stable and loving environment contributes immensely toward the development of each and every child in the Village. I observed an astronomical rise in many individuals’ confidence over a relatively short period of time. The students who were too self-conscious to utter a single word during family time later went on to become frequent performers at the weekly talent show, bringing crowds of over 500 people to their feet in applause.
I watched Theoneste Niyomushumba - an incredibly shy boy who was initially only interested in developing himself as a musician - rise from one of the lowest scoring school students right the way to the top. I witnessed Marie-Rose Mushimiyimana, one of my mentees and an absolute wallflower in Senior 4 - grow into a strong and inspiring leader for the Female Solidarity Group. I saw Maxim Iryumugaba - who by his own account knew next to no English before arriving at the ASYV - blow everyone away with his valedictorian speech at the Ingenzi graduation. I clearly recall Dr. Stephen Smith (Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation ) playfully declare, "I can't believe I've been asked to make remarks after Maxim. How am I supposed to follow that?"
Perhaps the best indicator of change comes when learning each student's goals and aspirations now in comparison with when they arrived. One evening whilst leading family time, I asked each of the boys what they wanted to do for a living. Among sixteen, there were five different answers. Soldier, taxi driver, president (Oscar), bar owner, and "businessman", the latter of which they couldn't explain. If I were to ask the very same question to any student from Senior 4 upward, the most common responses would be doctor, engineer, and teacher. Moise Gasana wants to be a astronaut! Gotta dream right?
But the mission of ASYV is not solely to transform the lives of the students. Tikkun Halev is the cornerstone for healing the kids of their emotional wounds and preparing them to be self-sufficient adults. ASYV's vision is much bigger, however, with the philosophy of Tikkun Olam. One of the things I admired most about Anne Heyman was her humility. The kids would shower her with praise and endlessly thank her for the immense efforts she made in order to restore hope and happiness in their lives. During the Imbuto graduation, she responded with, "Don't thank me, pay it forward". The Village encourages its students to always act philanthropically and teaches the importance of giving back to society. When ASYV invests in one child, they are potentially investing in the welfare of entire communities.
Last year I interviewed Merci Uwimbabazi, a Senior 4 student who serves as Health Minister in the Student Government, Miss Core Values of the Imena grade, and Vice President of the Female Solidarity group. Merci told me that when she arrived in the Village, she felt unable to express her thoughts, beliefs, and opinions. Looking at this strong, confident young lady, it was somewhat hard to believe she hadn't always been that way. But what struck me the most was her empathy and compassion. She spoke of how her professional goal is to become a doctor, not for money or status, but simply because she felt it was her duty to help the sick. Merci also expressed that she had a responsibility to use her voice to promote gender equality worldwide, and I honestly believe she'll go on to do just that.
To learn more, I joined the management team as they travelled to meet ASYV alumni in Musanze, northern province. Eric Tuyisenge, head of Monitoring and Evaluation collected information related to their progress since leaving the Village's blue steel gates. Aside from success stories of their own, including obtaining university degrees and starting new businesses, some had initiated their own charities and many volunteered their skills to surrounding communities. It was clear that Anne's legacy and the spirit of ASYV lived on in these young men and women long after graduating.
Three-and-a-half years since joining ASYV, it's plain to see the enormous impact ASYV's holistic model has had on the lives of so many since the dream began in 2007. Perhaps the most encouraging thought is that ASYV's very first students, the Urumuli Grade, have only just graduated from university, and the greatest achievements and success stories are still yet to come. And with so many more ASYV students to follow in their footsteps, I can only see a bright future for Rwanda, and, dare I say, the world.