'Hotel Rwanda' to 'Zionist' village

Jewish groups plan to open $19m facility for orphans of the Tutsi genocide.

rwanda survivor 224 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
rwanda survivor 224 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jean Pierre Nkuranga was only six years old when he first experienced xenophobia. The son of an ethnic Tutsi teacher growing up in 1980s Rwanda amid a Hutu majority, Nkuranga can still remember his first day at school when the teacher asked all Tutsi children to stand up and identify themselves. "Afterwards I got into trouble because I'd stood up too quickly and too proudly," said Nkuranga. "My teacher and later, my father, were very angry with me for being so proud." Nkuranga, now 34, retold the incredible story of how he survived the 1994 Tutsi genocide to a Jerusalem audience this week as part of the official unveiling of plans to open a $19 million Israeli-style youth village in Rwanda - the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village - by year's end. The project is a collaborative effort between the Jewish-American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Jerusalem-based International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential (the Feuerstein Institute) and the Israeli youth village Yemin Orde. While he highlighted the plight of Rwanda's estimated 1.2 million children (15 percent of the total population) left orphaned by the genocide, Nkuranga also shared with the audience the story of his dramatic escape from the Hutu militia intent on eradicating the Tutsi population. "It felt like the apocalypse," said Nkuranga, explaining how his family and other Tutsis from the village fled to a nearby hilltop but were surrounded by former Hutu friends and neighbors wielding machetes and other traditional weapons. "My legs were broken and there was no way I could run away with my family. They all said goodbye to me and I remember my auntie saying to me 'maybe we will meet in heaven,' then I hid in the bushes by the side of the road and for five days nobody saw me." From his hiding place, Nkuranga watched as his family and friends, both young and old, were slaughtered. In less than 100 days, nearly one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in the genocide. While Nkuranga was eventually rescued by the Rwandan Patriotic Army, which put an end to the killings, he told his Jerusalem audience that he can never forget the images of the children who were massacred. "Many Tutsis hid their children in bushes but the militia would simply throw grenades at them to kill them," said Nkuranga, who has since dedicated his life to working with orphans and will head the youth village's informal education department. The Agahozo Shalom Youth Village project was initially set in motion in 2005 by Anne Heyman, a US-based lawyer and mother of three, who had attended a lecture at Tufts University featuring Paul Rusesabagina, the inspiration for the hit movie Hotel Rwanda. At the event, she learned that the African nation had one of the highest numbers of orphans in the world, posing a serious challenge to the country's future. "She believed that Israel's youth village model, established in the 1950s primarily as a healing environment for young Holocaust survivors, might provide the answers," commented Gideon Herscher, JDC Israel Coordinator of the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, adding that the project is the "largest humanitarian aid project worldwide" to be undertaken by the JDC. Following the lecture at Tufts, Heyman began to look at various models in Israel, explained Herscher, and decided that the Yemin Orde youth village, which today houses dozens of new immigrant children from Ethiopia and other youth at risk, would serve as an excellent guide. Located south of Haifa, the youth village employs educational theories developed in the 1960s by Prof. Reuven Feuerstein, an educational psychologist and world renowned expert on care of special needs children and adults. Used to help young people who have experienced extreme trauma to continue learning, Feuerstein's educational methods will be used to form the backbone of the Rwandan project. "Our country has a huge challenge to overcome," Sifa Nsengimana, executive director of the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, said at Sunday's event. "We have very little in terms of natural resources to offer the world and we have our sights set on education - this youth village will help us in that goal and might actually be able to turn our country's fate around." Herscher said that funding for the project, which has already exceeded $6 million, is derived from various independent foundations and private donations. He predicted that the village would be fully operational within the next four years.