It Takes a Village

As the Hutus were systematically hunting down and murdering Tutsis in 1994, a philanthropic alumna named Anne Heyman C’82 was giving birth to her third child and deciding to quit her job as a New York district attorney to raise her family. Her life was changing, and though she had always been aware of social issues, the Rwandan genocide was not something she followed very closely. “It’s sometimes astonishing to me,” Heyman says now, “that I knew as little as I did.”

That would change a decade later when Heyman and her husband Seth Merrin—the founder and CEO of Liquidnet Holdings, a financial services firm—hosted a lecture at Tufts University (of which Merrin is an alumnus) through “Moral Voices,” a Hillel-sponsored initiative they founded to focus on different social injustices every year. For this particular lecture, in 2005, the subject was the Rwandan genocide.

Before the speech began, Merrin asked the speaker what was the single biggest problem facing Rwanda today. “And he said, ‘In a country where we have 1.2 million orphans, without a systemic solution to dealing with the problem there is no future for the country,’” Heyman recalls. “It occurred to me immediately that there is a solution to dealing with the orphan problem. They just needed to build youth villages. I thought it was a great idea but nobody was willing to do it.”

So Heyman, a native of South Africa, decided to do it herself. Inspired by the model created in Israel to deal with the orphans of the Holocaust, Heyman—an active Jew who’s always been guided by the Hebrew phrase “Tikkun olam,” which means, “repairing the world”—launched her ambitious project in September 2006. For the next six months, she spent equal time in New York, Rwanda, and Israel to create the proper structure for her new youth village, raise enough funds, get fiscal oversight from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, find suitable land, and hire Rwandan architects to oversee the construction of the buildings, among other all-consuming tasks. She had found her new full-time job.

Once the 144-acre Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (“Agahozo” means “dry one’s tears” in Kinyarwanda, a dialect of the Rwanda-Rundi language, and “Shalom” means “peace” in Hebrew) was built in the Eastern Province of Rwanda, the next step was finding its future occupants. With the assistance of the Rwandan government, which helped identify some of the most vulnerable children in each of the country’s 30 districts (some were orphans, while others had one living parent), a team from the youth village went out to conduct interviews before the selections were made. “I would say that is the toughest part,” says Heyman, who studied politics of the Third World while at Penn, “and I am very grateful that I personally don’t participate in it.”

Even if it’s on a relatively small scale—the village houses around 375 high school-aged students—it was immediately clear what kind of impact Heyman was making. One child was hospitalized as soon as he came into the village because he had a bad case of malaria—“He would have died if he wasn’t with us,” Heyman says—and others needed to be treated for burns, diseases, and malnutrition immediately. Wherever they had lived previously—whether it was at a boarding school or at a neighbor’s house or even out on the streets—these children of the Rwandan genocide, predictably, were not getting the necessary medical care to properly grow up and, in many cases, survive. Now, they finally were.

And yet, healthcare is only a part of the village’s mission. Education is another. The curriculum stresses the arts, community service, and basic life skills. Heyman hopes it will prepare the students of Agahozo to graduate and be able to give back to their communities, in ways they could never have done previously. That, she is convinced, is the only way to give Rwanda a future.

“We have an obligation to help others,” Heyman says. “And those children, in return, will have an obligation to do for others. And that is how we make our world a better place.”

 


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COVER STORY: Horror and Hope By Dave Zeitlin
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Anne Heyman C’82 and her husband founded ASYV, modeled on efforts in Israel to care for Holocaust orphans, after learning that dealing with the country’s 1.2 million orphans was the biggest challenge facing Rwanda. In addition to working and interacting with ASYV residents, the Penn students spent time at the village in reading and discussion.

 

 

 





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©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 9/06/11