Packing up and getting ready for Rwanda, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I was off to volunteer, working with orphan children at Agahozo-Shalom, a youth village in a relatively remote part of the world.  Mentally, I prepared myself to teach and educate.  Boarding the plane in New York, I felt ready to impart my years of Western education and experience to all the young children I would meet, but in the days following my arrival it became clear that although I had gone to teach them, it was they who would be teaching me.

Agahozo-Shalom is home to five hundred and twelve of Rwanda’s most vulnerable children.  The older students are children of the Rwandan Genocide, and the younger ones have almost equally debilitating stories.  Seeing how well they have blossomed and thrived at the village is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit.  This to me was the great lesson of Agahozo-Shalom, as I watched children of poverty prospering their way to successful careers.  Youngsters, previously beset in all manners, now excelled at sports and liberal arts,  the ferocious violence of their past replaced with new families and unbounded love.

During their four year stay at the village, students live together as families, sixteen students and a Mama to each house.  Most of the Mamas are widowed and lost their own children to the Genocide.  A big brother or sister, and sometimes a cousin, are also part of the family.  Visitors, like myself, are paired with a family when they come to the village.  A nightly gathering of the entire family, called “Family Time,” is replete with activities that can range from games (Trivia night, “I Got The Ball”) to serious discussions (birth control, taxes).  There were prayers, hugs,  and a great deal of laughter.  My favorite time of each day, Family Time was a chance to be with the children as they unwound in an environment full of love, care and devotion.  The end of the day was an antithesis to the places they’d come from.

One afternoon, several volunteers joined about two dozen students in constructing a new house.   We made cement and used it to layer adobe bricks across a running bond pattern in what would become a modest three room home.  The surprising aspect behind the activity was the whereabouts and situation of the new house.  Located outside the village, about a kilometer up the road, it would belong to a nearby resident who was currently living with three small children in a shack no larger than my Manhattan bathroom.  The construction was one of several community-based projects in which students participate.  Giving back to society is the basis of Tikun Olam – from the Hebrew words meaning “fixing the world” – and one of the two principle tenets taught at Agahozo-Shalom (the other is Tikun HaLev, or “fixing one’s heart”).  Having reached a place of new hope in their own lives, the children of Agahozo-Shalom waste no time in extending kindness and charity to those around them.

It isn’t possible to convey all my experiences at Agahozo-Shalom, but in the short week I spent there, the children I met demonstrated new definitions of hope, courage, care and love.  Having taken these new meanings to heart, it is easy to see who the real teachers are.

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October 6, 2014 at 10:07 AM




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