An American Jewish group helps survivors of Rwanda’s genocide

When Liliane Pari Umuhoza was growing up at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village — a bucolic compound just an hour’s drive from Rwanda’s capital city of Kigala — she learned a little Hebrew: tikun halev, to heal the heart, and tikun olam, to heal the world.

Umuhoza is one of 1,245 young Rwandans who have called the village home after losing family members during the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. It is a place where some children of a country ruptured by genocide have gone to live, study and become part of a family again.

In 1994, government-backed militias murdered an estimated 1 million people in Rwanda, eliminating 70 percent of the Tutsi population. Some 95,000 children were orphaned by the genocide. Umuhoza was very young at the time and lost many family members.

At the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, “first, they heal the heart so [you] can go on to heal the world,” Umuhoza says. “I feel like that’s what happened in my life.”

Woman standing over students working at a table (© Marvi Lacar/Getty Images)
University graduates — often young Jewish Americans — join the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village as fellows who serve as “cousins” for family units. (© Marvi Lacar/Getty Images)

More than a school or an orphanage, the youth village is a community of survivors. The late Jewish-American lawyer Anne Heyman modeled it on Israeli youth villages built for orphans after the Holocaust.

“We see a Jewish obligation to help those who have suffered trauma similar to our own,” says Shiri Sandler, the Rwandan village’s U.S.-based managing director. “We went through the Holocaust, so it is our obligation to help others who have survived genocide.”

As a teenager, in 2007, Umuhoza moved to the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village as part of its first class. She lived in a house with 16 girls who had suffered similar trauma to hers. They called each other sisters, and the boys, brothers. Each house was cared for by a “mama,” often a Rwandan woman who had lost children in the killing.

Students working at computers (© Marvi Lacar/Getty Images)
Two students participate in a computer class in the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. Vocational skills classes are offered every Friday. (© Marvi Lacar/Getty Images)

“The family model … allows students to gain the protective factors that can prevent them from developing post-traumatic stress disorder or make it less severe,” says Hannah Greenwald, an American who works on health care there.

While 1994 falls further into the past, “the trauma of the Rwandan genocide is still very much present in our students’ lives,” says Sandler. In recent years, the village has welcomed some of the 20,000 offspring born to the genocide’s rape victims and subsequently children who were raised by parents who were traumatized by the genocide.

People tilling the soil on a farm (© Marvi Lacar/Getty Images)
Students till the soil on the village farm, where 60 percent of village food is grown. Founder Anne Heyman wanted the community to be self-sufficient. (© Marvi Lacar/Getty Images)

Umuhoza sees healing Rwanda’s children of post-genocide trauma as a national imperative. Healing for her came through learning to tell her story. She shares it at universities across the United States. After graduating from Juniata College in Pennsylvania, she plans to return home to run workshops on healing for women who were raped in the genocide.

“We need to encourage survivors to tell their stories,” she says. “It’s a forever-lesson for our country and the world.”