Year Course Year Course in Rwanda
In early February, nearly two dozen Year Course participants traveled on a three-week trip to Rwanda – learning about and experiencing the country through an unprecedented exchange with the students at The Agahozo Shalom Youth Village, founded in 2007 by Year Course alumnus Anne Heyman z”l who left behind an incredible legacy of partnership and community when she passed away in 2014. The village was modeled after the Israeli youth village Yemin-Orde, and was built in an effort to respond to the overwhelming number of orphans living in Rwanda as a result of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.
The Year Course excursion to Rwanda is unique in its depth and implementation, serving as a learning and cultural exchange trip rather than a service tour. While there are certainly aspects of service and volunteering, the goal of the experience is to create an environment of growth and conversation not only for Year Coursers, but for students at ASYV as well. Thankfully, the village has grown far more self-sufficient since its founding. While the first Year Course visits centered around completing major projects in the village – painting murals, building water tanks, creating a new library – today’s Year Coursers spend more time bonding with their Rwandan counterparts, and perhaps as importantly, learning a different way to live. Coming to Rwanda, for many Year Coursers, is to confront for the first time in their lives a world completely unlike their own – a world that, though rich in culture and community, lacks many of the ‘comforts’ that Year Coursers may take for granted, both emotional and physical.
Jenn Greenspan and Noah Furman, two Year Coursers from Texas, knew they wanted to take part in the Rwanda trip when they first signed up for Year Course. The two are lifelong Judaeans, having attended CYJ-Texas and Camp Tel Yehudah before returning to CYJ-Texas as counselors, where this coming summer they will bring their Year Course experience home to camp after participating in the Camp Leadership Track.
From the beginning of Year Course in September until the trip in February, participants discuss and learn about the Rwandan Genocide in depth, as well as elaborate on Rwandan culture, history and traditions. Aside from better understanding the country and people they are going to visit, participants learn intensively about the genocide before going, because as Jenn and Noah describe, very little of the trip itself deals directly with the genocide – Rwandans are generally reluctant to talk about it. “When someone started to talk about the genocide, you’d hold your breath,” Jenn said. “I didn’t want to ask about it directly, so if someone decided to bring it up, I knew it was going to be important.”
When after months of preparation Year Coursers arrive at Agahozo Shalom, they are assigned to one of the village’s “families,” made up of groups of students who live together through their entire time in the village. Each group has a ‘mama,’ an older woman who oversees the house, though the students are responsible for their own chores and upkeep. They call each other brother and sister, spending their four years in the village supporting each other and operating as a real family. For many of the students, who might be missing one or both parents or come for an otherwise difficult family situation, the village and its students are home. They live and eat together, study, play, and work towards their personal goals. When the Year Coursers arrive, the ASYV students are quick to treat them like part of their families.
This was particularly moving to Jenn, who as a high school freshman underwent extensive medical treatment, an experience she feels she carries with her today. “I felt this connection with my family in the village, that we understood each other and could be open with each other in a way that many other people can’t,” Jenn says. “The kids in the village are very direct,” Noah adds. “We were encouraged to be careful about how we spoke and the questions we asked, but the natural flow was to share, to ask, to get to know each other in a meaningful way.”
With ASYV as their home base, Year Coursers also explore other areas of Rwanda, learning about the nation’s culture and reslience. They tour the Nyamirambo neighborhood of Kigali with leaders from a women’s center and visit a media arts collective created by ASYV alumni, take a safari ride in Akagera National Park, and visit Lake Kivu.
In December, the ‘mama’ of Jenn’s family will come visit in Dallas; Noah is wondering if he can find a way to return to the village for his family’s graduation. More than a way to learn about other countries and lifestyles, the Year Course trip to Rwanda is an incredible opportunity to build bridges between cultures and give participants the experiences and tools to keep working for a better world.