Nestled in the rolling hills of Rwanda, the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village is like a picture postcard.
“It’s stunningly beautiful,” said Noah Wolf-Prusan. “Everything is immensely green.”
Wolf-Prusan is just back from a yearlong fellowship working at the Rwandan home for orphans and vulnerable youth, and the memories are still vivid. It was a life-transforming year for the 29-year-old son of Lehrhaus Judaica’s Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan and Rebecca Wolf-Prusan — and a far cry from his native San Francisco.
“The best thing I did for myself is that I had no idea what I was getting into,” he said.
The site is a school and community with an unusual story, summed up by an unusual name that combines a word (agahozo) in Kinyarwanda, the main language of Rwanda, with a Hebrew one to mean a place where tears are dried, in peace. It was founded in 2008 by the late Anne Heyman, a South African Jew who had spent time in Israel, where she became familiar with the concept of the Israeli youth villages that housed rescued and orphaned Jewish children after World War II. When she heard about the roughly 500,000 children orphaned by the genocide in Rwanda, she decided that the youth village model could help there, as well.
Ten years later, Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village is a full-time residential high school, with more than 500 children who both live and study there, grouped into families, each with a house mother who takes care of them emotionally and physically. Almost 25 years after the bloodbath of 1994, the village houses not only genocide orphans but also youth who have suffered abuse or poverty, or are vulnerable in other ways.
“Almost everyone you’re interacting with here has suffered trauma in one way or another,” Wolf-Prusan said.
He was one of several fellows at the village, which regularly brings in volunteers from outside Rwanda. Wolf-Prusan spent a year doing PR and communications work, giving tours to foreign journalists and occasionally meeting celebrities such as Charlize Theron. Like the children who live there, he also became part of a family, bonding with teens who, despite coming from troubled backgrounds, were eager to learn and discover.
“Every opportunity you give them, they just jump at it,” he said.
Wolf-Prusan found out about Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in the usual way people find things these days — online.
“I think I found it on a search engine,” he said. “Everything kind of came together really fast.”
Although he had never thought about helping out in Rwanda, he did want a volunteer opportunity. He was living and working in New York for URJ Kutz Camp when, intrigued, he applied.
“A month later, I got an email saying are you still interested in going to Rwanda,” he said. “I was like, whoa.”
The fellowship was supported by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which runs a program called the Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps that places people in their 20s and 30s in volunteer positions around the world, from Mumbai to Jerusalem.
Each year, several are sent to the Agahozo-Shalom Village. It’s one of the many connections the village has with the wider Jewish community. The first few years, the village was run by Israelis with expertise in the youth village concept; now the executive director and head of the village are Rwandan, as is the staff.
Donations still come from Jewish communities or donors such as the Edmond J. Safra Foundation, and the village leases land to the massive Gigawatt Global solar field, which is situated there because of an Israeli connection between founder Heyman and the company’s president, Israeli-American solar power entrepreneur Yosef Abramowitz. And in honor of Heyman, who died in 2014, the village has a Tikkun Olam club.
With a robust relationship with the world of international volunteers and funders, and with strong support within Rwanda, the school has managed to change the lives of thousands of young people since its founding. It’s a special place that Wolf-Prusan says opened up his worldview.
“The experience is an amazing, amazing thing,” Wolf-Prusan said. “The students there, they’re just really incredibly sincere people.”
And although his fellowship is over, Wolf-Prusan said he won’t forget the village soon — or ever.
“I’m sure I will absolutely support and advocate for them,” he said. “Forever.”