Two years in Rwanda

Two years in Rwanda

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Naomi Stanway with members of the students she advised in a youth village in Rwanda.
Naomi Stanway with members of the students she advised in a youth village in Rwanda.

Naomi Stanway, who grew up in Ocean, got used to cold showers, electricity turning off unexpectedly, eating rice and beans for lunch and dinner of every day, and dark clouds descending on the Rwandan valley in the rainy season. 

She completed a one-year fellowship in November at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda through  the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Entwine Global Jewish Service Corps, and after a few weeks at home in New Jersey, she returned for a second year, at the village’s request. 

ASYV is a residential community for orphans and vulnerable youth. Founded by Jewish philanthropist Anne Heyman and first opened in 2008, it was conceived in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide to benefit the resulting orphans, and modeled on Israel’s Yemin Orde, a similar village for at-risk immigrant youth that was created in the aftermath of the Holocaust in 1953. 

As teens arrive at ASYV, they are placed in groups which become their “families” over the course of their stays.

During Stanway’s brief respite at home — she arrived Nov. 21 and departed Dec. 21 — she spoke with NJJN and reported enjoying “sleeping, eating, and catching up with friends.” And on Dec. 9, she offered a presentation about the village at Temple Beth Miriam in Elberon, where her father, Cy Stanway, is the rabbi. 

With NJJN, Stanway, 25, discussed her experiences, full of “big moments and small moments,” as she put it, developing an English enrichment program, managing three libraries in the village, and advising the student government.

One of the “small” moments, she recalled, happened during a downpour in the middle of the rainy season. When it rains, she said, it pours. “The country comes to a screeching halt and you stay where you are.” On one such afternoon, she watched the storm arrive with some of her students in the library. It started to rain and then the power and Wi-Fi went out. 

“I was with the kids with no music and no Internet, in the dark at 4 p.m. I had just made a pot of tea, so I poured the tea and took out a chess set and we sat and played, and played. By dinner, the electricity was back, and the Wi-Fi was back, but no one noticed.” At that moment Stanway knew she had been able to communicate to them that “there are people in the world who care about them and want to see them safe and happy.”

Stanway graduated in 2013 from the College of New Jersey with a degree in education and psychology, and spent two years with Teach for America in an elementary school in Alamogordo, New Mexico before heading to Rwanda.  

Although she had to make some adjustments to life in eastern Rwanda, she said that the village is self-contained and offers modern conveniences not readily available elsewhere in rural Rwanda, such as running water, electricity, and Wi-Fi. 

“It doesn’t feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere,” she said of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, which is a one-hour bus ride to the nearest big city, Kigali. “When you leave the village, you realize how rural it is.” 

Her days start by 8 a.m. and don’t end until 9:30 p.m. Last year her mornings were full of teaching; afternoons she spent in the library. She ate dinner with the students, after which there was “family time” with her assigned students. “It’s a 24/7 environment,” she said. “I live on top of my coworkers and I live on top of my students. I love it.” 

Still, she worries about her role as a white American coming in on a temporary basis. 

“I’ve done a lot of reading on what it’s like for volunteers to come in, do work, and leave. Often as soon as the architect of a program leaves, it falls apart and the village is in worse shape.” When the village asked her to come back, she said, “I looked at my students and thought, there’s no way I’m not coming back. I love the work, I love what I do.”

She’s had some big successes — in addition to reorganizing and digitizing the three libraries, two in the high school and one in the residential area — she helped the student government completely re-envision itself. When she first arrived, she said, 10 students comprised a “loose assortment with vague titles, no structure, no meeting time, no mandate.” Stanway helped them brainstorm ways they could be useful in the village to kids and adults. They appointed a president, vice president, and eight ministers. 

“As soon as we started calling them ministers, they felt empowered, important, confident. And the rest of the kids were so excited to support them. Everyone was talking about the minister of education or of health and wellness. They knew who to bring their issues to,” she said. Under her guidance, they wrote a constitution, created judicial procedures, set term limits, and provided grade requirements and expectations. 

“It was exciting to watch kids shape policy. They really internalized it as a legacy.” 

Being Jewish in Rwanda is a little tricky, she said. On the one hand, Jewish values like repairing the world are part of the building blocks of the village. “It’s interesting to hear a bunch of Rwandan teens talking about tikun olam,” she said. 

And because they come from a deeply religious culture, they are often interested in learning more about Judaism. “‘What do you believe? What makes someone Jewish? Why don’t you believe in Jesus?’ It’s the same as here,” she said. But there’s no organized Jewish community in Rwanda, or at least no synagogue, no Chabad. She and the other fellows “do what we have to do.” While they were able to find a Passover seder, holidays are scaled-down, low-key events. “We find an apple in the market and some honey and call it Rosh Hashana.”

The experience helped Stanway develop a new perspective on American culture, brought into sharp relief during her visit at home. Walking through a mall recently, she said, “I was struck that next year at this time 100 percent of this stuff will be out of style and garbage. It’s so much waste and lack of understanding of different expectations of life.” 

Compare that to Rwanda. “My students have a couple of pairs of pants and T-shirts and two pairs of shoes and that’s everything in the world they own. They don’t need anything else.”

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