Last Tuesday marked the first day of tikkun olam for Senior 4 (second year) students at Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. Tikkun olam, or “repairing the world” in Hebrew, is a core component of the Village. The students volunteer not only to help their community, but also to heal their hearts. ASYV students undertake numerous projects, which vary per grade. Senior 4 students provide administrative support at a local health clinic, lead English-enrichment activities at a primary school, and build houses for vulnerable families in the community. Senior 5 students teach English and computer skills to local adults and children. Senior 6 students complete special projects each term and create a legacy project, such as building a community garden at a local hospital. But one of the most popular and powerful projects is building homes. To date, ASYV students have constructed twelve homes in the neighboring villages. Every year, the tikkun olam committee, comprised of ASYV staff, meet with local government officials to learn about the most vulnerable families in the surrounding area. The committee evaluates each family and chooses two to assist for the year.
Claudine and her four children were among the chosen. Claudine lives only a ten-minute walk from the gates of Agahozo-Shalom. Born in 1980, she is a single mother to four children. The father(s) are not present in the children's lives and their whereabouts are unknown. Only two children currently live with her. The eldest child left to find work and the other child went to live with a neighbor. She has a small plot of land given to her by her brothers and a small house constructed of mud and a tin roof. The current roof is riddled with holes leaving little shelter for the upcoming heavy rainy season. They are without running water, electricity, toilet facilities, furnishings, and often, food. Life is hard, to say the least, for Claudine who has few family members and no income to support her children.
When the ASYV students and I arrived to her home, we were met with open arms. Claudine was overjoyed to receive support from ASYV. Her children ran out of the house to greet us. Their clothes were tattered and caked in mud. Samuel, two and a half years old, laughed as ASYV students played with him and “Obama,” named after U.S. President Barack Obama, aged five, curiously watched the group survey the land. I tried to maintain my composure as I observed the seemingly hopeless existence of this family, but the pit in my stomach remained.
The first task was to assess the future building site of the house. With the assistance of ASYV staff, the students will construct a larger home with two bedrooms and a family room. The students wasted no time in getting to work. They mixed mud and water to create bricks to be used for the home. Each one is handmade using a brick mold.
In just two hours, ASYV students created 37 bricks, a small accomplishment for their first day in building houses. The goal for future visits is to make at least 100 per session. The sun was setting and the ASYV students recited a final prayer at the site before departing. The children waved goodbye and we slowly walked back to the Village.
But tikkun olam didn’t end on their departure from the site. The ASYV students were deeply moved by Claudine and her family. They noticed her lack of basic necessities, such as food and clothing, and they wanted to give her more than just a house. When asked about the importance of tikkun olam, Senior 4 student, Quinzaine replied, “It is good because I am repairing my world and I like to help the poor.” Many students at ASYV come from the same life as Claudine. In the next few weeks, the students will meet to discuss ways in which they can provide more assistance to Claudine and her children. Their goal is to not only provide a house for the family, but to create hope for a positive future.
Even in Rwanda, it is easy to forget what happens in life outside the ASYV bubble. The Village is a beautiful utopian space amidst an area rife with destitution. The landscape is nicely manicured, the houses are colorful and orderly, and it is a peaceful environment. Claudine lives only a ten-minute walk away and as I write this article, I am sitting in a furnished home with running water, electricity, and wi-fi. I sleep in a comfortable bed with a mattress and bedding. Claudine and her children sleep on the cold ground with a threadbare sheet.
Despite the extreme poverty found in Rwanda, I am hopeful. It is extraordinary to watch so many young Rwandans help those who desperately need it in their community. The ASYV students possess a remarkable desire and willingness to help. Their passion is contagious and I truly believe that they are repairing the world, one house at a time.
Note: All photos of children were taken with verbal permission from the parents.