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For Rwanda’s genocide widows, a helping hand
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For Rwanda’s genocide widows, a helping hand

On mission to Kigali, rabbi helps survivors rebuild what they lost

Helen Jacobson with genocide widows in Rwanda last July; Jewish Helping Hands provides skills training for the women so they can support themselves. Photos courtesy Helen Jacobson
Helen Jacobson with genocide widows in Rwanda last July; Jewish Helping Hands provides skills training for the women so they can support themselves. Photos courtesy Helen Jacobson

In June 1994, while many Americans were glued to their television sets, watching O.J. Simpson make his famous getaway across Los Angeles, almost one million innocent Rwandan citizens were being systematically butchered by their neighbors.

Hutu military and political supporters went on a killing rampage, coordinated by the Ministry of Defense, as a result of increasing intertribal conflicts. For 100 days, the Hutu squads and their supporters carried out a “final solution” to the “Tutsi problem.” They looted and burned homes of Tutsis and moderate Hutus, raped women, and murdered adults and children with their machetes. Ten percent of the Rwandan population was killed over the course of three months.

I had the privilege of traveling to Rwanda this summer and working with some of the widows who survived the genocide. Most of them do not talk about the actual genocide, but they are eager to discuss their healing, how they are coping and rebuilding their lives.

Although the people of Rwanda are healing, hardships prevail for many widows and orphans. Fifty surviving widows conceived and created an organization called the Association of Genocide Widows (AVEGA), which has offices in regions of Rwanda. AVEGA has urged the Rwandan government to build housing for as many widows and orphans as possible. We visited one such village for widows, in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

Many of the widows are HIV positive, as a result of having been raped by militia members. Others have been raped while walking several miles to fetch firewood or well water for cooking and bathing.

Jewish Helping Hands, a foundation begun by Rabbi Joel Soffin, former religious leader of Temple Shalom in Succasunna, has been very supportive of the widowed women of AVEGA. In 2009, JHH “adopted” and sponsored 10 widows. This past July, I was able to see the progress that the women had made with the funds donated by JHH. Also on the mission were Rabbi Soffin and his wife, Sandy — who taught computer skills to Rwandans — and yoga instructors from the nonprofit KulaforKarma in Franklin Lakes, who taught yoga and stress management skills to widows.

The widows were eager to show off their achievements; some were tending new goats, rabbits, and profitable vegetable gardens. Many others still need help to improve their lives.

Among those was Alexia, a widow with three children. She holds a job with a cleaning company, but her salary is very low. Without transportation, she must walk a long distance to get to work and home. She was raped during the genocide, has HIV, and, although she had received treatment, often feels ill. She gets no food at lunchtime and is exhausted when she returns home.

Alexia’s youngest son was born HIV positive and is frequently ill and has missed a lot of school. At 15, he is still in primary school. Her two older children have finished secondary school but did not receive sufficiently high grades to be sponsored by the Rwandan government to attend university. Alexia is not able to pay for them to attend school.

The care and treatment she received for HIV ended this year. She is motivated to work and start a small business selling charcoal and vegetables. There is no market on the hill where she lives. She would appreciate a small amount of capital from which to generate a reasonable income and help at least one of her children to work or study a profession.

‘We feel abandoned’

Another genocide widow, Rose, whose husband was killed before she had any children, adopted four genocide orphans who are her relatives. Her house and all her household items were damaged during a storm last winter, so she and the children are staying with friends (sometimes with Alexia and her family) until her small home can be reconstructed. Rose has a small business, preparing tea and porridge for a restaurant, in order to support her children, but needs money to sustain it.

When Rose realized that the JHH members were Jewish, she told us she cried when she saw a film about the Holocaust. She then became very emotional. She realized that we, as Jews, understand the impact of the genocide in Rwanda. “Thank you for not forgetting us,” she told our delegation. “We often feel abandoned.”

Nine other genocide widows live at this particular site in Kigali. Most of their adobe homes were damaged by storms. These women and their families are very appreciative for the financial support and visits they have received from JHH. When Rabbi Soffin and other JHH supporters visit such communities, they are greeted with waves, hugs, and cries of “Merci beaucoup.”

Jewish Helping Hands volunteers teach Rwandans skills that will help them to become more self-sufficient. Computer classes help them learn how to operate small businesses. Yoga instructors from New Jersey have led workshops and taught stress management skills to survivors. Rabbi Soffin held workshops for young team leaders about fund-raising possibilities in their communities.

I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to participate with JHH and to see how its members are “mending the world, one miracle at a time.”

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