After Anne Heyman's Death, Heartbroken Family Picks Up Torch in Rwanda

Grieving Children Vow To Follow in Philanthropist's Footsteps

courtesy of heyman family

By Nathan Jeffay

Published February 20, 2014, issue of February 28, 2014.
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The shiva period of mourning for Anne Heyman has only just ended, but the American philanthropist’s heartbroken family is already taking concrete steps to make sure her legacy of caring for orphans of Rwanda’s genocide never dies.

Heyman’s 19-year-old son, Jonathan Merrin, journeyed to Africa for a month-long stint at the unique youth village Heyman founded. Another son, Jason Merrin, plans to join the board of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. A nephew is also joining the trip, calling his aunt “100% a moral compass.”

“I have a lot of friends in the village, and I’m their brother,” Jonathan Merrin said as he prepared to leave from Israel, where he is doing a post high school year course with Young Judea. “They are hurting, as I am, and it’ll be good for us to be around each other.”

“Every day I keep her in mind, and do the types of things she would do,” said her 21-year-old daughter Jenna Merrin, a student at Brown University.

Jonathan Merrin
nathan jeffay
Jonathan Merrin

Heyman established the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in 2008, inspired by Jewish values and based on the strategies kibbutzim used to deal with Holocaust orphans.

When Heyman died in a horse riding accident January 31, at the age of only 52, it wasn’t just her husband and her three children who mourned her loss. Rwandan students, who lost their parents in a 1994 killing spree, remembered Heyman as a “second mother” who would spend countless hours counseling them one-on-one during her frequent trips to the school outside the Rwanda capital of Kigali.

The African orphans described Heyman’s sudden death as a crushing personal blow — and quietly wondered if the death of ASYV’s main patron might deal an even more severe blow to its future.

For his part, Heyman’s widower, Seth Merrin, insists the family will not permit her death to derail her dream. He helped Heyman establish the village, and he will soon visit to personally reassure the children that its future is secure.

“The first reaction from the kids when they heard about Anne’s passing was that they were sad, and then they thought that we were going to close the village and that they wouldn’t have a home,” he said.

Seth Merrin’s company, Liquidnet, a global institutional trading network, has invested heavily in terms of staff time and resources at the village, ensuring that it is technologically advanced. He vowed that it will continue to generously assist ASYV.

The oldest of Heyman and Merrin’s three children, Jason, intends to join the board of the youth village. In the United States he is planning to be an activist in the fight for greater gun control, another issue about which his mother felt strongly.

Jenna Merrin runs a chapter of Moral Voices, the Jewish student program that Heyman established to raise ethical issues in Hillel chapters around the country. A third-year psychology student, she is organizing a full year of lectures and presentations on genocide for her school’s Jewish students. And she is considering spending a year at the village after graduating.

The hands-on memorialization does not stop with Heyman’s children. Her nephew, 18-year-old Ben Bronstein, headed to Rwanda with Jonathan Merrin for the month-long volunteering stint — a decision he made long before her death.

“Now I see a different purpose to the trip — continuing what she was doing, not just going and helping,” Bronstein said. “I feel that she would have been really proud of our decision to continue with the trip as planned.”

Bronstein and Jonathan Merrin are doing a yearlong program with Young Judaea, based mostly in Israel. Since 2010, the movement has offered its Year Course students a chance to volunteer for a month at Agahozo-Shalom in Rwanda.

For Jonathan Merrin, signing up for a year with Young Judaea had special significance even before his mother died. His parents met on Young Judaea Year Course, and Heyman credited the program with turning her into the committed social activist she became.

“Back then it was a very idealistic program that bred social activists, and I really wanted to get the social activism from it which my parents got,” Jonathan Merrin said.

When Heyman died, Jonathan Merrin’s sense of walking in her footsteps, both by participating in Year Course and by heading to the village she built, intensified. Investing a month in the village will help him to express his “enormous sense of pride for her and pride for the kids.”

After his bereavement, at least one friend suggested Jonathan Merrin shouldn’t go through with the Rwanda trip.

“Others had it on their faces… it’s the absolute worst idea and it’s too soon,” he recalled. “But I’d rather go and find it really hard than not go.”

The teenager, who relaxed as the washing machine whirred in his family’s seaside apartment, was under no illusion that it would be easy. He sees his late mother everywhere, especially in the Israeli apartment that she planned to be the family’s eventual home base.

“She would sit outside and watch the waves, and said she would retire here,” Jonathan Merrin recalled. “I find it really hard being in this house of her design — and [ASYV] is a whole village which is her design.”

Jonathan Merrin recounted his mother’s journey to becomiing involved in Rwanda as he remembers it — through a child’s lens. He was with his parents at the 2005 talk that inspired them to get involved in helping to build Rwanda’s future.

“I remember the day my mum got the idea… the speaker said that there’s no future for a country with 1.3 million orphans,” he recalled. An elementary school pupil at the time, he remembers being decidedly less inspired. “I fell asleep,” he said.

In the months after the lecture, his mother read voraciously about Rwanda. The young boy surveyed her piles of books and noticed that his mother’s reading tastes had become uncharacteristically morose. He remembers suggesting that she “just add one happy happily-ever-after book into the pile.”

His sister’s memories include the rushed moment when the village got its name. In 2006, Jenna Merrin, then in the eighth grade, was with her mother in an Israeli hotel as she frantically prepared to fly to Rwanda for a planning meeting about the new project.

The middle school student did what any child would do: She pulled out a laptop and started Googling words in Rwanda’s Kinyarwanda language.

“I gave her a list of words like ‘peace’ and ‘love,’ and it included agahozo — where tears are dried — and she went to the meeting with that name,” Jenna Merrin said.

Her mother’s achievements — turning an idea and a name found in an online search in a hotel room into a groundbreaking youth village — led her to one of Heyman’s strongest messages: “People really can do anything.”

Seth Merrin also thinks big. He believes that the successes of the village show that there is hope for Rwanda as a whole — perhaps even, with the right education and the right investment, hope of great prosperity in the future.

“This sounds like a pipedream, but if you would have looked at Singapore 60 years ago, it would have seemed like a dream there, too.”

Contact Nathan Jeffay at jeffay@forward.com


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