By Sherry Stolar
I honestly am not sure what I expected when I decided to apply for JDC Entwine’s Insider Trip to Rwanda, but there’s no way I could have anticipated how truly meaningful the journey would be, and the lasting effect it would have on me. Perhaps I’m still only beginning to fully realize and understand it, having returned a month ago.
It may seem strange to have booked a trip to a country recovering from a tragic civil war only 2 decades before to find peace and healing, but from the moment I read about Agahazo Shalom Youth Village, ASYV for short, and its mission, I felt compelled to go for that very reason. In fact, for me the trip was nearly 2 years in the making from the time I first applied. I had planned to go in 2015, was packed and ready to go, when the day before the outbound I flight my parents called to tell me my grandmother was about to pass.
It was the second time in two years that someone I loved deeply had passed unexpectedly, having lost my other grandmother the year before. And loss was something I had become all too comfortable with in that year; in addition to losing both of my grandmothers (whom with I was very close), I ended a 3+ year relationship with my boyfriend whom I had moved cross-country for, left a job that I’d loved, moved cross-country again to a place where I had to start all over. In the span of only 2 months, my entire life changed. I was grieving for many things I’d lost on many levels.
Perhaps that’s why ASYV and its mission called to me. The idea of a place of beauty and hope that gave people a chance to start anew, to heal and find peace, to build a new community and forge a new path forward together. I was desperate to find that myself and somehow knew subconsciously I’d find it at ASYV.
When the late Anne Heyman, founder of ASYV, embarked on this mission, she knew that the village had to be a place of beauty in order to inspire hope and peace. Modeled after similar villages set up in Israel after the Holocaust, ASYV was initially established to protect, care for and educate Rwandan’s youth who were displaced after the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. It’s hard to fathom, but almost one million people were killed in just a few short months during the Genocide, leaving Rwanda with the world’s highest orphan population per capita. Each year, ASYV takes in the most at-risk high-school aged kids from around the country, offering them a unique chance at building a new life.
The students live in family units for 4 years and are assigned a “Mama,” who cares for them as if they were her own children. They name their family after a person of inspiration (my family was named Margaret Ekpo, for the Nigerian women's rights activist). Multiple nights a week, the families sit down together for “Family Time,” talking about their days, singing songs or playing games. They eat their meals together at the dining hall, volunteer together on Saturday mornings. At 5:45am every Saturday they do an activity called “Mucaka Mucaka,” a run around the village during which they chant in Kinyarwanda, the native language, singing and cheering – an exercise in both physical and mental health. Friday nights are “Village Time,” a talent show held in the grand amphitheater overlooking the Rwandan hillsides.
I read all of this in the briefing packet before I went, yet seeing it firsthand somehow still felt novel and inspiring. Before I finally left for the trip – after packing for it a second time – I thought I was going to provide a direct service, that I would spend my days working on the farm, chopping vegetables in the kitchen, and teaching kids English in the classroom. I thought that I was going to give.
The reality was that I did none of these things (ok, I did chop vegetables twice). I wasn’t in a classroom; in fact, I didn’t step foot in the majestic school at the top of the hill until the week had nearly ended – and there were no students even there at the time, at sunset on Shabbat.
What I did was take. I took in the horrors of the Genocide – at the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, and at the Nyamata and Ntarama churches where mass murders took place. I took in hope, as I got to know the incredible students at ASYV and their stories, how they were taking advantage of every opportunity given to them and then some to build a brighter future for themselves and others. I took in beauty, as I watched the sunset on the red dust hills surrounding the village, saw elephants and giraffes in Akagera National Park, and watched the millions of stars light up the sky when the power went out in our guesthouse. I took in pure joy, as I ran through the village during Mucaka Mucaka as the sun rose, danced “Gym Tonic,” a Zumba-like dance workout, on the basketball court with my Margaret Ekpo family, and sang the Hebrew song “Sallam” with my fellow JDC Entwine volunteers on stage at Village Time, teaching the hundreds of ASYV students the lyrics and watching them sing along.
I’m told my presence there was in a sense giving, that my choosing to spend my time to travel there and meet the students and hear their stories and learn about their culture was a gift. But, I feel I got so much more than I gave.
In our group’s last reflection session before departing, we discussed how hard it was going to be to go back to our day to day lives, where problems were having “too much” to do, or the local Whole Foods being out of our favorite sushi. These aren’t real “problems.” Yet, loss – death, divorce, fighting with a friend or family, being let go from a job, losing a pet – all of these things are real problems. While it may manifest in different forms and circumstances, no one’s life is free from tragedy entirely. We’re all different, yet at the core we’re all the same.
If a country can recover from a tragedy as devastating as the Rwandan genocide, if children who have seen their mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters murdered can commit to bettering themselves, not only to give themselves a second chance, but to provide one for others, if they can forgive and move forward as One Rwanda, surely there’s no tragedy that’s insurmountable. The power of community, of love and support, is incredible.
I returned from Rwanda to San Francisco, where I realized I have built myself a new community. It looks entirely different than the community I had three years ago, even one year ago – maybe I wasn’t ready for this journey yet then. Nothing changed necessarily when I returned from ASYV, but I did; I recognized and appreciated the new life I’d built for myself.
Even when life is at its darkest, knowing that you can always go somewhere new, that you can always meet new people who will make you feel worthwhile again, is proof that anything is possible with hope, love and belief. ASYV is doing just that for Rwanda’s youth, and I feel so grateful for having been any small part of its story – and having the opportunity to continue to be a part of its inspiring community.