Five students recently returned from their journey from the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, through Doha, Qatar, on to New York City, and back again to attend the annual Stand Up and Be Counted event. The trip was filled with many “firsts” for the students including their first airplane ride, time traveling outside Rwanda, NYC street-vendor hot dog,  subway ride, seeing street performers and people dressed as Sesame Street characters in Times Square, and their first time hailing a cab (they became experts and quickly learned that cabs do not equal expedited modes of transportation in NYC).  The students experienced many things while in NYC, including the 9/11 Memorial, Central Park, The Museum of Natural History, bowling, and a viewing of Broadway’s The Lion King, which they equated to “visiting heaven” because it was so unworldly and fantastic! They’d all seen New York City in movies and on television shows but they expressed that they were nervous, and the reality was more than they could have expected.

When asked about their impressions of New York City upon their return to the Village, one student voiced, “People are so busy, always looking for something to do… time management is really real in New York!” They shared that while in NYC, they found themselves reflecting on what they’d been taught in the Village and realized that a lot of the lessons instilled in them helped them navigate the new city. “When they [the NYC ASYV staff] said be ready at 7 am, they meant to be there before that time, and everyone responsible from the participants to the drivers are all ready.” The students found the city to be different from what they expected. One stated that he was bothered by the smell. Another said she struggled with jet lag, while still another was amazed by the different kinds of people she saw while they were walking through the city. 

The students all expressed surprised sentiment that the values taught in the Village were mirrored by the people they met in New York. The experience of witnessing people living in America drove home a lot of what they didn’t completely understand about the Village’s core values and education system, which are both extremely unique in Rwanda. In particular, the students noticed that the notion of Tikkun Olam (giving back to others) is an aspect of everyday life for the people they met while in America.  They expressed amazement at meeting so many people who care about all the students at ASYV, and were impressed by how much people give everyday to ensure that there will continue to be an Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in the future. 

“It is amazing how one person can help a whole nation. We are, at ASYV, a nation, the next generation in Rwanda.” 

At the Stand Up & Be Counted event, one student sat with a new friend who bid on an item in the live auction. The man who bid on the item turned to the ASYV student and responded to his surprised look by saying, “I’ve already given you cows and much more. I want to continue to support you [and all those at the ASYV].”

The ASYV students were in awe and expressed admiration for the warm and loving welcome they received from everyone in the extended Agahozo-Shalom family. 

“People said to us, it is our pleasure to help you… I was so happy and I am still happy now.  People really love the ASYV kids.  Everyone wanted to talk to us.  They showed us their love … it was so nice the way they spent their time with us.”

The students were also surprised by how humble everyone was. They were struck by the amount of time and money people gave, but expressed that “They didn’t seem proud, only that they wanted to help.”

The students were in awe of the network of ASYV supporters whom they had the opportunity to meet and interact with while in New York and realized that, “It takes much more than just the Village to keep Agahozo-Shalom standing… Anne Heyman and the ASYV team work very hard for us.” Upon returning to the Village, the students took time for reflection and stated that, “Sometimes we behave irresponsibly. My experience [in NYC] made me realize that we should think twice about the things we get in the Village.”

On their final day in New York, the students spent time with survivors of the Holocaust at the Museum of Jewish Heritage (see NY Times article here) and were deeply impacted by their experience with them. Each survivor shared messages of hope and survival. 

“I was told something that I will never forget,” one student volunteered. “If I want to be someone, I really have to work for it. Everything I put my mind to, I have to do. It is my responsibility to myself.”

Another student expressed that the greatest take-away lesson he learned from the survivor he spoke with was that, “If you want to reach something, you must focus on that… seek your vision no matter what.  You will meet many temptations but you must do what you are here to do.”

In some ways the students left New York City with a feeling of obligation to live up to the expectations people have for them. “The people we met said they wish for ASYV kids to be the change makers … We will do it!”

Photos from the ASYV students' various experiences in NYC