Friday, July 17, 2009

Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village: Views from Rwanda: A Liquidnet Community Perspective

Fairer Globalization today obtained permission to post this letter from Liquidnet CEO Seth Merrin, who was in Rwanda last month to dedicate the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village for Rwandan orphans.

Views from Rwanda: A Liquidnet Community Perspective

Last week, eight of my Liquidnet colleagues accompanied me to Rwanda for the ceremonial opening of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) , a home for Rwandan orphans that the Liquidnet community helped to build (The village actually “unofficially” opened in December when the first 125 orphans began living and learning there.). Even though we have been involved since the inception of this project and I have been to the village site previously, being at the village now that is was fully operational and talking to the students, counselors and teachers had a profound effect on all of us. It gave me new perspective, especially in these times. I thought I would share some of my thoughts with you.

With names like Innocent and Patience, every kid and counselor has a story that could best be expressed only in the goriest of horror movies.

Innocent, a counselor, sat down with our group for more than an hour telling us his story. Over the course of 100 days, he narrowly escaped death no less than seven times: Fleeing from a line he was made to stand in where one by one the people in front of him were being hacked to death by machete; running away from a group of soldiers who were too tired from the physical labor of hacking people to death to chase him; being waved through a checkpoint because a soldier was lighting his cigarette. Innocent was ultimately caught, shot, hacked three times in the head with a machete and left for dead. A few days later he woke up. on a mound of dead bodies. It took him a while to realize he was alive; the revelation came as he looked around and realized that he was actually lying on a mound of corpses.. Innocent climbed out of the mass grave and, aided by the instinct to survive, knew he had to get to a hospital to live. His head was so swollen he had to lift his forehead over his eyes just to see. His terror continued as between him and the hospital were the roaming bands of genocidaires who continued their government sponsored killing sprees. Before finally making it to safety, Innocent was captured again and tortured. It is nothing short of miraculous that he managed to live to tell his story and eventually to help others.

There are approximately 200 people living at ASYV today, each with a past of similar atrocities inflicted on them or on one of their family members, often with them as a powerless witness. Six months ago, theirs was an unimaginable story of adversity and survival, and many debated whether these survivors should be considered the ones lucky to live or instead the ones doomed to remain alive.

But today theirs is no longer the story of adversity but the story of life, of hope and of future. Innocent lived, his massive wounds healed and he put himself through university. He was hired as an informal education counselor to care for and counsel the children of the ASYV.

Emmanuel is one of our ASYV students. He has never been on a plane but wants to be a pilot. His father was studying to be a pilot when he was killed in the genocide. A form of self healing, Emmanuel is determined to honor his father’s memory by completing that mission and learning to fly a plane. Six months ago, Emmanuel knew no English, had never seen a computer and went to school where obedience and submission through various forms of punishment were the main subjects taught by teachers who themselves had very little education. The day of the village inauguration, visitors went to the different classrooms in the Liquidnet Family High School where students taught classes in the subjects they were studying. I got to watch Emmanuel teach a physics class entirely in English using PowerPoint slides that he created.

I will tell you with no uncertainty that we, the vast majority of us, do not truly know the meaning of adversity. We all experience hardships and difficulties, but what these kids survived requires words that I don’t believe have been invented yet.

Every student I spoke to said they spent the first few months not believing the village was real, going to sleep expecting the next day they would be returned to their former lives.

For most of us, the significance of what the village has created came in the form of a song the kids and the school’s principal wrote and sang at the inauguration of the Liquidnet Family High School. As it was a song for their parents, the children sang it in the Rwandan native language of Kinyarwanda. They sang to tell their parents in heaven that they can finally rest, that they (the kids) had found a new family, new parents who love and care for them, and new siblings to care for. They wanted their parents to know that their long journey from the genocide was over, that their children will be okay.

I think it became clear to all of us with the culmination of that song that the Liquidnet community has helped to give to the kids of the ASYV. It is the gift of easing their burdens of why they survived but their families did not. It is the gift of giving them a purpose to live. It is the gift of allowing them to comfort the souls of their parents and set them free. It is the gift of a better life.

What we learned from our trip to Rwanda is that we all have a greater purpose today. That what we consider adversity, we should be thankful for; that we should look to the kids of the ASYV to teach us that any adversity can be overcome. That we should use this troubled time and attack it with everything we’ve got. Our collective determination to succeed and improve the lives of our own families today extends beyond our personal needs. We have proven that together that we can change industries; that we can do well while doing good; that we can help change the world.

If you have any interest in learning more about the ASYV or some of the other projects the Liquidnet community is doing on its behalf, below are a couple of Web sites to check out.

Best regards,

Seth Merrin


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