Nothing in Lily Brent’s past growing up in Princeton could have prepared her for the legacy of suffering she has encountered in Rwanda.
Working at the Agahozo Shalom Youth Village and dealing with young people left orphaned by the 1994 genocide, Brent is learning valuable lessons about the triumph of the human spirit.
The village is a project of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. In a country with 2.8 million orphans among a total population of nine million, the youth village seeks to rehabilitate traumatized young people, providing them with food, shelter, health care, and education.
“It is difficult to summarize what I’ve gained from my work here,” Brent, 26, wrote in an e-mail to NJ Jewish News. “I have forged relationships with extraordinarily loving, creative, empathetic, and resilient people. It is humbling to witness the humor, optimism and faith of people who have seen the worst side of humanity.”
Currently one of 10 JDC Service Corps volunteers, she is assigned to mentor a house of youths, tutoring them in English and collaborating with the house mother to teach them life skills. Brent also teaches jewelry-making and embroidery. She was also put in charge of coordinating village visits, including giving tours and planning and preparing for 10-day alternative spring break trips for students from the United States and Israel.
“I have watched people debate about how to rebuild a society where almost a million people were slaughtered by their fellow citizens only 16 years ago,” she wrote. “Today killers and victims live side by side in a fragile peace.”
Brent has also gained an understanding of how people “can think differently — not just have different opinions — but a different thought process for the way they analyze the world.”
Currently, the village is serving 250 high-school age youths. They live in groups of 16 in family homes with a housemother, who is often herself a genocide survivor. In about two years JDC expects to reach its capacity of 500.
After-school activities, including sports and arts, are designed “to broaden their horizons” and provide therapeutic outlets for dealing with past horrors.
“One of the most important tenets of the ASYV philosophy is tikun olam (healing the world),” said Brent. Although the village is non-sectarian, its residents all know the meaning of the Hebrew words.
“The young people are taught that they must use whatever knowledge and skills they acquire to give back to their community, whether that be their next door neighbors or the world at large,” wrote Brent.
The daughter of Dan and Sally Steinberg Brent of Princeton, she attended Princeton High School and earned a BA in English from Oberlin College. Brent previously worked for the New York City non-profit Family Justice, and, inspired by her Rwanda experience, plans to pursue a joint master’s degree in social work and public policy upon returning to the United States.
She said she was drawn to Rwanda because of the “chilling” similarity to the fate of Europe’s Jews during the Holocaust. In Rwanda, Hutus turned on their Tutsi neighbors.
“I thought perhaps I would gain insight into why genocide happens and how it can be prevented as well as learning about education and holistic support as a way to combat poverty in the developing world,” said Brent.
The experience has also proven to be an exercise in the power of humans to forgive despite unimaginable tragedy. While once Brent rationalized people had no choice but to move on with their lives — or else the conflict would continue for generations — she now realizes that “of course Rwandans had a choice and the choice they made was miraculous.”
“Rwandans chose life,” she added. “They didn’t have to. But most people here seem to have decided that safeguarding the lives of their children is more important than revenge.”