Rwanda, 1994 and 1995. Hutu, Tutsi. One million dead, 2.8 million orphans. These facts seem long ago and far away for the students at the Saligman Middle School of Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School in Melrose Park.
However, when Anne Heyman asked, "How many of you know what tikkun olam is?" everyone raised a hand. Good thing, for Heyman was there to show them the idea in action.
Heyman spoke last week to the students about the project she founded: Agahozo Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda. In June 2009, the village became home to 125 of the millions of children orphaned by the Rwandan genocide. In time, if things go as planned, the village will become home to 500 orphans.
"It is important for us to engage Jewishly with the world," Heyman said to the students. "By telling you my story, I want to show you that one person can have an idea and change the lives of many people."
Agahozo Shalom Youth Village sits on 144 acres of land in Rwamagana, Rwanda. When construction is complete, the village will have 32 houses filled with orphans between the ages of 14 and 18, along with "house mothers" and live-in counselors. More than half of the teens are girls.
"We were advised to make the village 60 percent girls," explained Heyman. "Rwanda is a patriarchal society. If there is money for school, families send the boys. But there is now a belief that educating girls is the way to lift an entire society. Girls — women, really — provide stability in villages, and they pass knowledge to their children."
Four teenagers have been chosen from each of Rwanda's 30 districts, nominated by mayors and local officials.
"We want the kids to take their new knowledge back to their home areas and spread it," said Heyman, who spoke at several area schools during a recent fundraising visit here.
Education takes place in the classroom, where the children learn math, science, literature and the English language. Another kind of education takes place in the farm area, where they learn agro-forestry skills.
ASYV's farm now keeps the entire village fed, lowering costs and teaching sustainability.
"My goal is to have a chicken farm and dairy," said Heyman. "Lately, I've been asking people to donate cows."
Heyman, a native of South Africa, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and George Washington Law School.
Now a Manhattan mother of three, she attended a meeting in 2005 where she heard a Rwandan man speak about the orphan situation in his country.
"I thought of Yemin Orde, the orphan village that was created in Israel for the children who survived the Holocaust," said Heyman. "And I thought, 'We should do that for these kids.' "
Heyman raised $11.5 million to buy the land, build the village, and train teachers and support staff with administrative, legal and financial support provided by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee; corporate sponsor LiquidNet, a financial firm; and individual donors.
While the staff and teachers are college-educated Rwandans, Heyman pointed out that the teens know that it's the Jews who are helping fund the village.
"They know the phrases 'tikkun olam' and 'tikkun halev' ['healing the heart toward calm and equanimity']," said Heyman, "because that's what we do at the village. We get them to heal their world while we heal their hearts."
Heyman said that group therapy and individual counseling are available, and orphans also engage in nonclinical therapies like art, music and photography.
"Everyone in life has a past, present and future," said Heyman. "These kids' pasts are broken. We are healing them in the present so they can have better futures."
In the auditorium of Saligman, 100 or so kids gazed at images of a red-roofed village half a world away, and of the teens who now live and work there.
"In middle school, you begin to understand the world and how it affects you," said Dalya Hahn, 13. She spoke about the project she did for her Bat Mitzvah, and related it to the work being done in the village.
"When she talked about the orphans going back to their hometowns and changing things because of what they've learned at the village, it shows that the kids can make a difference in the world — on their own," said Hahn.
Max Newman, 12, said that he could see their hearts: "Maybe the village can clear up some of their sadness."
For more information, log on to: www.asyv.org.