Thursday, February 20, 2020

Jacky Tuyisenge told middle-school students at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County that before she came to the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village (ASYV) three years ago, her days were spent hiking up nearby mountains collecting firewood for heat and cooking.

“Exhaustion stole any desire to learn,” said the 18-year-old resident of Kigali, Rwanda. “These were days without hope.” Now, three years later, Jacky joined seven other students from Agahozo-Shalom on a ground-breaking visit to the United States that included learning, impromptu singing, and a joint game of soccer with Schechter’s students on Yom Ha’atzmaut— Israel’s Independence Day.

Jacky is now in her third year at Agahozo-Shalom; she has learned to speak English with striking grace and hopes to attend college to study business. She told SSDS students this week she has fully embraced the value of Tikkun Olam—repairing the world—a concept she learned at Agahozo-Shalom, which is modeled after an Israeli youth village originally established to care orphans from the Holocaust. “That is what we learn here every day too,” said a smiling seventh grader as SSDS students presented the visitors with more than eight box-loads of desperately needed school supplies to bring home to Rwanda. ASYV is a place where “tears are dried” (signified by the Kinyarwanda word agahozo) and where vulnerable youth can “live in peace” (from the Hebrew word shalom).

The students’ stopover in New Milford follows on the heels of a visit SSDS Head of School Ruth Gafni, and Beryl Bresgi, SSDS coordinator of Shoah studies, made to Rwanda in early April with the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of Rwanda’s genocide. More than 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in 100 days, rocking the world. Students in several schools throughout Rwanda—and at Schechter—are currently using survivor testimony from the foundation’s IWitness program to help them understand the impact of genocide.

SSDS students were spellbound as Innocent Nkundiye, the 22-year-old self-proclaimed poet of the group, performed a spontaneous poetry slam he called, “We are the New Blood of Rwanda,” referencing his generation’s efforts to help heal and rebuild Rwanda after the genocide.

During the students’ visit to SSDS, however, most of the conversation revolved around exchanging stories of each other’s lives and enjoying each other’s music. “If you have a piano, we can sing for you,” blurted Blaise Rwamukwaya, 20, a self-taught pianist and singer. Nearly 50 SSDS students and faculty leapt from their chairs in the school’s library and made their way to Makom Shira, the school’s music room, for an impromptu concert. Agahoza-Shalom students surprised everyone with their version of such American pop songs as John Legend’s All of Me, and Bruno Mars’ Count on Me; however, they captivated the group with an acapella South African hymn.

SSDS students responded with a spontaneous rendition of “Let It Go,” from Disney’s animated film, Frozen; followed by Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” as the students arrived on the morning of Schechter’s school-wide Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration.

When Coralie Keza asked a Schechter student during a lunchtime conversation in the school’s cafeteria about the meaning of “Hatikva” and Israel Independence Day, she was told, “It’s a song about hope and a day of freedom.” Coralie smiled, and said: “I now understand a lot about hope and freedom; and I have learned that a simple smile can heal most wounds.”

Special to the Jewish Link