Anne Heyman was working for the New York District Attorney's Office in 2005 when she met a survivor of the Rwandan genocide at a fundraiser. National Geographic reports that in their discussion, Heyman learned about the huge population of young people who were left as orphans in the African country. In a population of 11 million people, one million are orphaned children. After hearing this staggering statistic, Heyman remembered some history: After World War II, tens of thousands of Jewish orphans who had lost their families to the Holocaust ended up in youth villages in what would one day be Israel. Could a similar model be created in Rwanda?
Heyman and her husband, Seth Merrin, raised $12 million to start the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, which they hope will one day be just a single location in a number of villages throughout the country supporting teenagers and children with nowhere to go.
The village started in 2007, and they're currently celebrating their tenth anniversary. Currently, 500 teenagers call the village their home, and they come from all 30 districts of Rwanda.
Heyman died in 2014, after falling from her horse while riding in the U.S. But she told documentarian Ari Besser that it was extremely important to her that the village support teenagers.
“There were plenty of organizations attempting to take care of the babies,” she said. “But who was looking after them when they were teenagers? I knew that was the age group that needed to be targeted.”
The village isn't just a home, it's a school with a farm, athletics, arts, and education on sustainability measures, like the village's 8.5-megawatt solar plant. ASYV claims that it's the "first sub-Saharan grid-connected solar project, and provides electricity to nearly 10 percent of Rwanda," according to Inhabitat.
The students are of mixed ethnicities. Some may have had parents killed in the genocide, some may be the children of perpetrators. Though they don't discuss it openly, one anonymous student to Besser that the young people do not care. “Of course, I know that some of my brothers are born from parents who could have been killers in the genocide,” they said. “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.”
The Rwandan government has taken note of ASYV, and sent representatives to their graduation ceremonies. It's hoped that more money will be invested in projects like it, and see Heyman's vision come true.