Humanity comes from the Latin word humanitas, which means “human nature, kindness.” As written, the term suggests that all human beings have the intrinsic ability to be kind. While it sounds simple, there are moments throughout our history where humanity has been anything but kind, buried deep in darkness. The genocides in Rwanda, Armenia and Darfur, as well as The Holocaust, are cruel pieces of history – impossible to ignore. Indeed, these destructive moments in time have cast a shadow on many people and cultures, and much of humanity is left wondering, “How can this barbaric hate be possible?” Instead of trying to make sense of what never should have been, survivors and the next generation have chosen to forgive, prevail and prosper. I experienced this first-hand when visiting the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) through JDC Entwine’s Insider Trip to Rwanda and spending a week with the most vibrant students. This is where my story begins.
Twenty-five years ago, the worst possible kind of man-made destruction occurred in Rwanda. Nearly 1 million Tutsis were slaughtered by the Hutus over the course of 100 days. Many others were displaced and left to rebuild after what had been their country’s most prolific nightmare. Rwanda was left with the world’s highest orphan population per capita. Today, Rwanda is in recovery and working tirelessly to ensure a safer, brighter future.
This past month, a group of 18 global Jewish leaders traveled with JDC Entwine to Rwanda to spend a week with the community at ASYV. JDC Entwine was established to build a generation of young Jews who lead and live a life of action with global Jewish values and responsibility at the core. Visiting Rwanda, a country that has persisted through crisis, is one of the most meaningful places I have experienced. The dichotomy of humanity almost non-existent in Rwanda in 1994 to the thriving community that exists today within the younger generations is one of the most incredible models of resilience that I have witnessed.
The village was built by Anne Heyman, a woman and visionary philanthropist who was compelled to find a solution to Rwanda’s orphan crisis. Anne and the JDC presented a model based on Yemin Orde, a Youth Village in Israel that was built to address The Holocaust orphan crisis, to Rwanda’s government officials. In 2008, the village was built. The village currently houses 500+ high school students who are orphans per UNICEF’s definition. Despite the students’ less fortunate beginnings, they are some of the most inspiring humans, driven to discover ways in which they can change the world. It did not take long to learn some of them already have.
The village’s infrastructure is holistic in its approach, prioritizing education, gender equality, family values and health. In a group of three, we were assigned a family for the week where we shared special moments together including meals, English lessons, sports, performances and family time. Meals held in the dining hall were village-wide, loud and full of laughter. It was some of our best one-on-one time with a variety of students, who were quick to offer a chair and ask us to sit with them. The first evening, Noella told me her dream was to go to Boston University and that the idea of snow excited her.
Grouped by grade and gender, the teens are put into “families” living together in a house of 20+ people. They share home duties, have a live in “mama” to watch over their well-being and create a support system for each other. For my family, it was their first year at the village, having only been there three months. When we arrived, my family was polite, kind, very welcoming and eager to practice their English skills. Kefa, a girl from my house, ran to greet me in the dining hall and escorted a few of us back to the home with excitement and endless giggles.
My group of three was our family’s first visitors since arriving at the village. Despite being complete strangers, we were immediately embraced. The Rwandan culture is very affectionate, constantly giving hugs, saying “I love you,” hand holding, and sharing the best smiles one can imagine. They were deeply generous, open-hearted and grateful. In return, we shared the same sentiment. By the end of the week, we had become family, having a profound mutual impact on one another and exploring the value of community, love, culture and support, together.
Every Friday, the village comes together for “Village Time,” their chance to display their talents in a performance with music, dance, sports, modeling and much more. The cheers and roars from the community for the students on stage set new standards for encouragement and support. There was no distraction of iPhones or Snapchat, just a group of people focused on cheering for their neighbor, brother or sister, as loudly as possible.
Being a part of this community, even for a short time, allowed me to truly understand the meaning of humanitas – because it was absolutely everywhere! In the students’ smiling faces and outstretched arms, in the staff’s encouragement and dedication, and in Rwanda herself, the land of 1,000 hills radiating beauty, lusciousness and warmth at every turn. Despite the turmoil in their past, these students find no reason to do anything but exuberantly share their love and kindness, accepting others without grudge, anger or resentment.
A very important motto in the village is:
“If you see far, you will go far.”
At ASYV, every student is encouraged to be whoever they want to be. They are taught that hard work, determination, family and humanity are ingredients to ensure a better future than the one that came before. In turn, I learned what it means to live by this ideology. They showed me it is much easier to act from a place of love and forgiveness rather than hatred and cruelty, regardless of one’s history. While we can’t erase the past, we can right the future. By loving big, supporting fully and showing up for everyone around you.
I am so grateful for this special moment in time where I was able to pause, zoom out and focus on the greater good. I am better person because of the time I spent in the village – with Amani, who told me his aspirations to be a doctor; Patrick, who shared his goals of becoming an actor; and Ezekiel, who wants to practice tikkun olam, the Jewish value of repairing the world, just like those who built ASYV. I will carry these moments, and the inspiring resilience of Rwanda and ASYV, with me forever. This community showed me, and everyone else, that humanity does exist – and it does so in the pureness of our hearts.
We wrote farewell notes to each other during our final family time. I received a note from Diane whose smile is forever embedded in my memory, and her words have since been marked on my soul:
“You can’t know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory. We are realising (now) all the memories that we spent together.”