On Thursday the 20th of October 2016, the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village joined with donors, partners, friends and family to celebrate our fifth graduating class - the Ishema grade!
The event began with the communal singing of both the National and ASYV anthems led by Icyizere Grade Coordinator, Longin and Big Sister/Counsellor, Dorcus respectively.
A short prayer followed the anthems before a minute silence was held for Village founder, Anne Heyman, who tragically and unexpectedly passed away two-and-a-half years ago.
The first speaker to the podium was Vincent Kalimba, who has now been with the Village to celebrate his second graduation following the Ingenzi grade ceremony earlier this year. After welcoming all guests, he commented, "The graduation ceremony is one of the most memorable events in anybody’s life. This comes at the end of a long journey of academic and social preparations. This ceremony tells you that you are now prepared to rewrite your narratives and to achieve your life purpose. Let me remind you of your legacy. It is not a legacy of names, certainly, there are many whose names have not been mentioned often, but a legacy of actions of humanity where each and every one of you has in one way or another given back to the community. I can't count how many smiles you've put on people's faces through building them houses - including the one that you inaugurated on Tuesday, improving their nutritional status by building kitchen gardens, just to mention a few. Sons and daughters of ASYV, you have acquired all the necessary skills and identified the most appropriate tools that you carry with you as you head into the future. What you do with your package will determine your ability to remain a socially responsible citizen. I have no doubts that you will." Kalimba concluded by recognizing the amazing support the Village has received from all of our donors and partners over the eight years the Village has been in operation.
A short video produced by members of the Village Media Club was then presented which brought tears to the eyes of many sat in the audience. The clip contained inspiring personal stories of the kids' transformations during their time spent in the Village.
Next up to the microphone was Aloys Kagimbura, the recently appointed Director of Informal Education and Philosophy here in the ASYV. He began by asking each individual family to stand up and receive recognition and applause for all of their achievements during their four-year experience. Kagimbura then highlighted the contributions that the Ishema grade has made not only to the Village but surrounding communities. He also touched on the business initiatives that have been formulated by various members of the grade.
It was then time for the graduating class to showcase their artistic talents, which came in the form of a spoken word performance/sketch. It began with a scene based on family time with a message to work hard and be committed in order to achieve one's dreams. The performance continued with speakers expressing how ASYV's programs had helped to enrich their lives and that the knowledge and skills they have obtained in the Village will undoubtedly aid them in their future endeavors.
A song was then performed by Ishema grade vocalists Peter, Blaise, Saleh and Belyse. The upbeat melody brought everyone to their feet dancing and the singers were soon surrounded by their fellow graduates.
Ornella Rwanziza was selected as Valedictorian of the Ishema grade, and following the song, it was her opportunity to demonstrate just why. She did not disappoint, stating, "Education is freedom, but the locks of that opportunity were tightened every day before we came to Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. Our educators at Agahozo-Shalom removed these barriers and un-cuffed us. You taught us how to be wise. You taught us how to pick ourselves up after failure and rise again. You taught us to be responsible citizens; you taught us how to be children in small families and one, large ASYV family. You taught us how to stand up and speak out against injustice. You taught us not to be afraid of those who are different from us; you taught us that our differences don’t tear us apart, but they instead give us the opportunity to experience diversity which gives life to new ideas, innovation, and beauty. You taught us that our greatness lies and will always be in each other’s strengths as long as we continue learning from each other." She poetically ended her speech with, "Looking in these graduates’ eyes, I see constellations. If you connect the dots you can trace the true shape of success, change, transformation, determination, hope, and commitment. In their eyes I see the same lights that guided our heroes to liberate our nation; I see the courage that made Malala stand up for what she believed in. I see them, I see the future. We have come from the worst; we experienced what no other high school students would ever imagine happening to them. But we should never be pulled down by those struggles. Our stories are the ladders that make it easier for us to touch the stars. So climb and grab them, grab them. Graduates, we were Ishema Grade – The Pride of our Nation not born to be common, we were born to be comets. Light up the world with your luminous light. Graduates, with our deep commitment to our communities, we all reflect the purpose of the school founding, but more importantly we possess the very hopes and dreams of our nation."
Rwanziza's powerful speech blew everyone away and it was Executive Director, Jean-Claude Nkulikiyimfura who had the unfortunate task of following her. Nkulikiyimfura chose to use his time to talk about ASYV's three core pillars, "Healing. Through parental wholeness. All of our kids have lost at least one parent and many have lost siblings too. The first duty we have to heal our kids is to mend their hearts through the philosophy of Tikkun Halev". He continued, "Education. The critical thinking and self-expression we encourage here empowers our kids to face any obstacle with courage... We don't just want our kids to find jobs, we want them to be job creators and social innovators." Nkulikiyimfura finished, "Giving back. At ASYV we make sure that our kids go out to their communities and solve problems."
A video was then shown containing supportive messages from the Heyman family and Laurie Franz, the ASYV Board Chair. Apologies were made by both parties for not being able to attend the ceremony, along with messages of pride and support for all of the successes of the Ishema graduates. Franz acknowledged the talents, community service and business initiatives that have been so prevalent in the class of 2017. She also stated, "You're wonderful role models and serve as great examples to the remaining grades. Each and every one of you has made ASYV proud and one day you could even be the pride of the nation."
Representing the Heyman/Merrin family was Jenna, daughter of ASYV founder, Anne Heyman and Liquidnet owner Seth Merrin. She began by addressing the kids, saying, "Anne was my mother as she was to all of you. This makes us family."Merrin continued, "It is sad that my mother isn't here to see what you have all become. She would have told you how proud she is of all of you but that this is just the beginning. There is still so much more work to do." In her concluding remarks, she stated, "There is no leaving ASYV because you are ASYV."
The mayor of Rwamagana followed Merrin to the podium and began his speech by saying, "I am delighted to be here today and to see the remarkable progress that has been made since the first ASYV graduation ceremony back in 2012. It is common knowledge in Rwanda now that the Village has helped some of the most vulnerable youth in the country go on to study at top universities in different countries across the globe - including the US, Canada, China, Costa Rica and Mauritius to name a few." He went on to advise the graduates, "You should be agents of change in this world and continue making sure that Anne's legacy continues to live on through you."
The final speaker was our guest of honor, Mrs. Rosemary Mbabazi, Permanent Secretary, MyICT. She began her speech by commenting on the song that was performed earlier on in the ceremony, declaring how impressed she was with the talent and confidence before encouraging an encore. Mbazazi then said, "I applaud ASYV for transforming the most vulnerable into future leaders and thank the government for embracing Anne's vision." She commented on the innovations ASYV students had that will help their communities and commended Josiane Ishimwe for the work that is being conducted through the Science Center. Mbazazi concluded by encouraging the kids to, "start small but dream big" - referring to the opportunities that await them as they go forward.
The ceremony was capped off with a song congratulating the graduates, a traditional dance performance, and group photo. Following the ceremony, all who were in attendance gathered to share food and drinks and extend felicitations to the young men and women who will soon leave the Village.
On behalf of everyone at the ASYV, we wish all Ishema graduates health, happiness, and prosperity as they embark on their new journeys outside the Village!
Submitted by Leigh Woods, Village Fellow 2016