Rwanda has a population of 11 million people – and one million of them are orphans. After hearing about this crisis, couple Anne Heyman and Seth Merrin started the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) to offer a safe community and four-year high school education for at-risk orphans. Today, over 500 teenagers from across Rwanda’s 30 districts call the youth village home — and an on-site solar plant provides clean energy to other parts of the country.
After hearing about Rwanda’s orphan crisis, Heyman was reminded of youth villages Israel constructed to house children orphaned after the Holocaust. The couple began ASYV to help teenagers specifically, as they knew of several organizations already working to care for orphaned babies. On 144 acres, hundreds of teenagers now receive an education and a family.
ASYV organizes students into families. Each group has a mama, a Rwandan educator who resides in a house with the teens, and a big brother or big sister or Rwandan guidance counselor who visits once a week. They also have a cousin, a foreign volunteer who comes for a year. ASYV recruits teenagers from around the country, taking in 125 every year.
A village Health and Wellness Center provides medical and mental care, with health education on topics like HIV/AIDS, malaria prevention, and diet. Life Enrichment Applied Programs allow students to get involved in athletics or the arts. A farm, where students can get hands-on farming experience, provides around 30 percent of the village’s food. There’s even a 8.5-megawatt solar plant on village grounds. According to ASYV, “It is the first sub-Saharan grid-connected solar project, and provides electricity to nearly 10 percent of Rwanda.”
Students of mixed ethnicities live together, as the youth village hopes to express reconciliation in Rwanda. One student, who asked to remain nameless, told National Geographic, “Of course, I know that some of my brothers are born from parents who could have been killers in the genocide. But why should we punish them for crimes they did not commit? I don’t want to know what their parents did. I only see them as my brothers and sisters.”
Ten years in, graduates of the youth village have gone on to higher education at universities like Brown University or the University of Pennsylvania. Student Emmanuel Nkund’unkundiye, at ASYV’s first graduation ceremony, said, “Many people call us orphans but this time we are no longer orphans, we have a home.”
Images via Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village Facebook