AGAHOZO-SHALOM YOUTH VILLAGE, Rwanda — (JTA) — Anne Heyman’s death during a horse-riding competition in Palm Beach, Fla., on Jan. 31 shocked and devastated many in the Jewish world.
But it was Heyman’s work in Rwanda that so many of her admirers will remember most.
A former assistant district attorney in Manhattan who made a career shift to philanthropy around the time she began having children, Heyman learned during a visit to the Tufts University Hillel in 2005 about children who were left without parents by the Rwandan genocide.
Inspired to do something to help, Heyman set about establishing a youth village for the orphans modeled on Yemin Orde, the Israeli youth village set up for children who survived the Holocaust.
The idea behind the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, located in a rural area about an hour from the Rwandan capital of Kigali, was to provide the orphans of the genocide with an enclosed, nurturing environment where they could grow up while recovering from their trauma. The word “agahozo” comes from the local expression for drying tears. Heyman, who had three children of her own, didn’t just raise millions of dollars in funding for the village. She spent as much time as she could at Agahozo-Shalom, visiting several times a year.
“Every day she thought of those kids, every time I talked to her,” Laurie Franz, a friend and youth village board member, told JTA on Monday before Heyman’s funeral at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York. “She believed in helping people. She had the biggest heart of anybody I know, and she did it continually, honestly and with so much passion. She was intelligent and beautiful and wise and kind.”
When news of her sudden death at age 52 reached the village, Rwandan Youth Minister Jean P. Nsengimana wrote on Twitter that the village “just lost a mother.”
Many of the kids at Agahozo-Shalom can hardly remember their biological mothers.
Twenty years ago, their mothers and fathers were demonized in a racist campaign, their siblings rounded up, their families and friends killed by machetes, clubs and guns as their country was torn apart in genocidal brutality.
In many cases they grew up with one parent or no parents, in the care of an older brother, sister, cousin or guardian. Some have been abused, some abandoned, many too poor to afford basic necessities.
Now the 500 students at Agahozo-Shalom, 15- to 21-year-olds who in some way were hurt by Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, live in a carefully planned refuge amid a stunning landscape in the country’s center. They study biology, math, history, economics, language and literature in a full-service high school. In the afternoons they paint or play soccer, record gospel music or do electrical work.