Celebrating the New Year

We counted aloud – ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR… FIVE! While somewhat different than the typical countdown that I am used to on New Years, the excitement when the clock struck midnight was no different than could be seen anywhere around the world. The crowd erupted into cheers as a representative from the families and staff cut the giant cake (quite possibly the largest cake I have ever seen).  Some kids had never had cake before. As the kids enjoyed the sambosas, snacks, and cake the smiles on their faces matched the upbeat ambiance of the evening.

Last week, Agahozo Shalom celebrated the New Year with a celebration lead by the Enrichment Year kids, who were in their fourth day at ASYV. The celebration consisted of five hours of beautiful performances of singing, traditional dancing, and modeling, interspersed with music and dancing. A few kids volunteered to MC, and introduced the performances with such energy and humor that the time flew by. It was a truly incredible way to ring in the New Year – surrounded by incredible kids, full of so much joy, talent, and confidence.

The following day, the staff and kids were surprised with a huge barbecue, with all sorts of side dishes, beef brochette (meat is a rare treat here) and soda (an even rarer treat here!). The picnic turned into an impromptu dance party, with everyone taking part in the joy.

It was a beautiful start to the year and my time here at Agahozo Shalom.  I posted some more pictures on my photography page .

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Move-In Day Video

I put together a short video from move-in day last weekend. Check it out!

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Murakaza Neza

“Agahozo” in Kinyarwanda means “a place where tears are dried.” “Shalom” is the Hebrew word for “peace.” Here at Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, you will find both of these things. It is a place of healing. A place of learning, of change, and of transformation.

Last Sunday, 128 new students arrived. The students traveled hours or days from each of the 30 providences with a guardian (often a relative or neighbor) to reach Rwamagana district and Agahozo Shalom, their home for the next 4 years.

The children hesitantly stepped off the busses and took their first glances of the village. Some carried a small suitcase, others had no more than a backpack or petite duffle, to hold all of their belongings. We greeted them with warm hugs, handshakes, and “Murakaza Neza,” meaning “welcome” in Kinyarwanda.

The opening ceremony included speeches from village staff and singing performances from older ASYV students before the students and their guardians shared a snack of sambosas and tea. Afterwards, everyone headed to the basketball courts where each of the 8 families were called out starting with the Mama, big sibling, and cousin, followed by the name of the 16 children in each family. With each name called, the child walked down from their seat and hugged the members of their new family.

Back at the family homes, I sat next to one of the girls older brothers and another’s aunt. Mama Bernadette, who is a new mother to the village, introduced herself to the guardians. The big brother of one of the girls shared his gratitude to Mama Bernadette. Both of their parents were dead, and he was so happy that his sister was selected to come to ASYV to have a family for the first time. Another guardian spoke of how she had heard a few years ago about this place that helped kids and was so amazed actually seeing the place with her own eyes, and for her child to be able to be helped here.

After the children said goodbye to their guardians, they gathered their bags and moved in to their new rooms. Before dinner, we sat in around in the family room getting to know one another, marked by lots of giggles and smiles.

That night at family time, Mama Bernadette shared her story. After the genocide she took in and raised 20 children who were not her own. Since then, she has raised these children and worked in social work. One of the children she cared for graduated from ASYV last year, which is how she found out about the village. Though her English is limited, she is fluent in French and Kinyarwanda. She is so full of joy and love.

Some of the girls shared their feelings of arriving at ASYV. One girl summed up her sentiment by saying, “I am so happy to have a mama, to have a cousin, to have sisters – I have never had these things before.” Another shared with a timid smile – “I am thankful for the food and family that I have here.” While I do not know the details of these girls’ pasts, I can only imagine. I know many at the village come from homes where they have never known what it is like to have 3 meals a day. Others have survived severe traumas that are unimaginable.

The 16 girls in my family are slowly opening up each and every day, and I am so excited to be a part of their lives for the next year. To sit next to them at meals, to talk with them at Family Time, cheer them on at performances, and help them with schoolwork and learning English. To watch and be a part of the work that Agahozo Shalom does, bringing peace and drying tears.

Family 2 meeting for the first time

Family 2 meeting for the first time

Check out some more of my pictures from move-in day on my photography page.

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Agahozo Shalom – An Introduction

The Agahozo Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) is a truly unique place. Located in a beautiful rural region in the Rwamagana district of Rwanda, it is home to 500 of Rwanda’s most vulnerable youth, ranging in age from 14-22. Students are selected from each of the 30 districts of Rwanda, after being identified by local leaders as being in vulnerable situations. All are orphans by international definition (meaning they have each lost at least one parent, though many have lost both). And all have their own story, their own path, often marked by trauma, hunger, and unsafe conditions.

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View of the village from the school

 

At Agahozo Shalom, the main goal is to heal. Repairing of the heart if first and foremost. This is done through the family structure of Agahozo Shalom. The children live in families of 16 siblings of the same gender, each with a Mama. The Mama’s are special people, many of whom lost their own families in the genocide 20 years ago, and are dedicated to being the mother to these 16 children for four years (and often beyond). Many of the children have never had a family structure before coming to Agahozo Shalom. Each family also has a Rwandan big sister or big brother for the first two years, and a cousin (which is one of the roles of the Western fellows like me). The social workers on staff provide specialized counseling services and evaluations on all of students are always available for support. The school, located at the hill above the village, provides high-quality education.

Children are all encouraged to discover and pursue their passions through the dozens of clubs and enrichment programs, ranging from dance, art, music production, debate, leadership, newspaper, world cultures, sports and many more. The days are busy, and through weekly Village Nights students share their talents through performances, followed by a dance party. Saturdays are reserved for Mucaka Mucaka (running and cheering at 5:45am), working on the farm, then mostly free time, followed by a movie after dinner. Sundays are for church, and lots of free time, catching up on homework, and preparing for the week.

Each weekday night (Sunday through Thursday) ends with Family Time after dinner, where the families gather for time together to discuss the day, do an activity, or just relax and watch a movie.

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Mural outside the dining hall

 

I am one of 8 fellows/cousins at ASYV right now – Katherine (my roommate) in in charge of languages, Shelby works in communications, Rachel is the international guest coordinator, Becky does advocacy and partnership, Alan works with informal education, Max is an assistant in operations, and Simon (who has been here for a year already) works in IT. We have a really wonderful group!

Here at Agahozo Shalom I have several roles. My main professional role is Assistant at the Career Development and Student Resource Center. The Career Development Center is designed to help the children plan and prepare for life after the village. My role will involve helping the kids prepare resumes, practice English, prepare for standardized tests (SAT and TOFEL), apply for colleges across the world, and apply for scholarships especially for universities in the US (which a few students will attend each year).

I also serve as a Cousin for a family of 16 incredible girls. My role is as a mentor and friend. As a native English speaker, I am also there to help promote English speaking in the home. English is one of the official languages in Rwanda (along with Kinyarwanda – the most widely spoken – and French). The children all learn English in school, and by their second year at ASYV take all of their classes in English. The new students have wide ranges of English skills, from only being able to say “hello,” to being nearly fluent.

I also am helping with the debate team and debate club, and as a public speaking coach for a class at the school. The debate club decides on a topic that is debated in the family homes in the village each week. The debate team competes against other schools in Rwanda, and last year were ranked second in the country! Time to put my high school speech and debate skills to good use (obviously geeking out/super excited about that one).

I feel so lucky to be here at Agahozo Shalom, working with such incredible children and staff. Check back soon for updates about move-in day, New Year’s celebration, and our first week here.

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The Rwandan flag overlooking the hills and lake outside the school

 

 

 

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Rwanderlust – About me

Wanderlust \ˈwän-dər-ˌləst\ (n): a strong, innate desire to travel and explore the world.

I want to see the worldI want to explore it. To truly understand it. To learn from it. I want my interactions with individuals in communities across the globe to change, challenge, and inspire me. And ideally, I want to make the world a little better and a little brighter than it is.

I was once told that “in order to make the world better, we must first understand the world better.” And that is just what I am doing. There is so much beauty, strength, and resilience in this world, and it is my goal to understand it all a little bit better so I can make the world a little bit better.  Throughout my undergraduate career, wanderlust (combined with some amazing opportunities and inspiring individuals) transformed my interest in healthcare into a passion for global health. A passion to try to understand the world.

Which brings me here. To Rwanderlust.  On December 21st I am moving to Rwanda. I will be working at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village through a Fellowship with The American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC)’s Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps. This phase of my life is defined by what I am calling “Rwanderlust” – the passion and desire to explore Rwanda, one beautiful corner of the world, known as the Land of a Thousand Hills.

My journey officially begins in exactly one month, when 7 fellows and I board our plane to fly to Rwanda to begin our year at ASYV.  Feel free to take some time to learn more about me and where I’m going by visiting the tabs at the top of the page.  I will be posting updates through written posts, pictures, and videos periodically, so check back for updates.  Thank you for everyone who is supporting me on this journey.

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