Muraho (hello!) from the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village
Written by: Darren Rabinowitz, JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps Fellow at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) in Rwanda
Welcome to Rwanda!
It has been three weeks since the four JDC Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps (JSC) Fellows, Shayna, Lauren, MC, and Darren (me) have arrived in Rwanda. As our minds and bodies (and stomachs) acclimate, I find myself fascinated and inspired. Life takes time here. There is no rush. The pace at which people work and go about their daily tasks is slower. In Western cultures time is money and if things take longer, revenue is lost - but in Rwanda it is just the way things are. Rwandans enjoy their time together, allow conversation over milk to flood an afternoon and invite everyone to breathe in the views that are constantly around. Coming off of living in Washington D.C. for 4 years, one can imagine the immense difference in lifestyles. It has been a stark difference living amongst the wealthiest and most influential people in America, to working with the most vulnerable people in the Rwanda (to say the least).
I write to you from the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village. ASYV or the Village for short, is organized in a way to restore the rhythm of life for Rwanda's most vulnerable youth. The Village is rooted in the Jewish values of Tikkun Halev and Tikkun Olam. During my interview process for my JDC placement, I did not know where in the world I could lend my skills, being an arts educator. I pictured myself in Europe or in Latin America engaging Jewish commutes via the arts but I quickly found out that there was a different plan for me. I still remember receiving the email stating I was being considered for Rwanda. One can imagine the initial shock and then internalizing this news. It took time but I am glad that JDC Entwine placed me in the most appropriate position for my skills at ASYV.
My specific role is working on Village-wide programming. I coordinate enrichment programs including sports and arts, as well as Village Time which is allocated every Friday for students to showcase their talents. I am constantly amazed at the raw talent the students possess, and their desire to share these gifts. In Rwanda, your talent is who you are and how you connect to others. Culturally, it is unacceptable to not share your talent for they bring light to the world.
I am also a ‘cousin’. The role of a cousin means that I have been inducted into a family of 24 (freshman year) boys in addition to two big brothers (graduates of ASYV) and a mama (a Rwandan woman who plays a maternal role in the family).
On the day to day, I forget that my boys don’t come from the easiest of lives. I do not know all of their stories, nor do I feel I should. Some have shared, while others keep it to themselves. As educators, what we do know is that most of our students have lost either one parent or both. Many are heads of households, often supporting several brothers or sisters. Most students come from backgrounds of neglect, abuse, and almost certainly made to grow up too quickly.
It often overwhelms me that, despite the hardships they have faced, the students have an incredible passion to learn, to try new things and to instantly adopt the family model ASYV upholds. For example, I have a few students who approached me and asked why Rwanda is not like the United States. We then proceeded to discuss comparative histories of colonization, the implications of resource extraction and lasting legacies of European expansionism in Africa. Other boys in my family ask me where they can find an English to Kinyarwanda dictionary so they can practice translation. I see these students carrying dictionaries around with them as if they are a Willy Wonka golden ticket. Even students who struggle with English intently listen to our debates, frequently checking with their neighbors for correct interpretation. Their understanding, at such a young age, that education is the key to success is inspiring.
At times, I think about the connection I have as a Jewish person to the lives of the Rwandan young adults I work with. What I think of is that we are both a people who experienced genocide. We both understand the immense loss, grievance, and repercussions of losing huge portions of our people. After visiting both genocide memorials of the Holocaust and Rwandan Genocide, I have a greater appreciation and understanding of what it’s like to live in a place experiencing the aftermath of overwhelming tragedy – perhaps similar to Jews who have migrated to Poland or Germany years after World War II. The religious center down the road, the old factory up the hill, the event space downtown are all places that were once part of life, and can now be seen as a reminder of death. I imagine that the older faces I see on the streets here in Rwanda resemble the faces of my Grandparent’s generation. The permanently furrowed brows. The cloudiness of their gaze, all lost somewhere in the past. I wonder who they were, how they were involved, and how they have come to terms with all that has happened a mere 22 years ago.
Reflecting on why I came to Rwanda, and my experience so far, I realize it is not me who is lending a helping hand to the students at ASYV. Rather, that they are assisting me in healing, learning and understanding. We, Jews and Rwandans, have a mutual responsibility to help one another, brush each other off, and hold our heads high with dignity. That, as survivors, we have an innate, shared responsibility of shouldering this title. We all come with baggage, and it is our duty to one another to help carry each other along our own paths.
Murakoze cyane (thank you),