A trailblazing Rwanda school for genocide orphans was plunged into intense mourning Saturday by the death of its founder Anne Heyman — revered by students as a “second mother.”
Heartbroken students at the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village, who lost their parents in the 1994 killing spree, wept openly after learning of the tragic death of the Jewish philanthropist in a Florida horse-riding accident.
“It’s the worst thing that could happen to us — again,” Emmanuel Nkundunkundiye, 21, a recent graduate told the Forward from the campus outside the Rwanda capital of Kigali. “It’s like being made an orphan all over again.”
“We called her our mother, our angel,” he added. “It’s a loss for us, but also a great loss for the entire nation.”
Coralie Keza, 20, said Heyman was a special inspiration to the girls at the school.
“She brought a light to us,” said Keza, who has one more year at the school. “I thank God I had the opportunity to talk to her, and her spirit will always be with us.”
A memorial bonfire was lit at the school Saturday night and a church service was planned for Sunday morning in the predominantly Christian country.
Six candles — one for each of four high school classes and two alumni classes — burned next to a framed portrait of Heyman beneath a tree where Heyman negotiated the purchase of the land for the school from 96 small landowners.
“It symbolizes where it all began,” said Jean-Claude Nkulikiyimfura, the school’s director.
Heyman, 52, a South African-born lawyer, mother of three, and prominent Jewish philanthropist, died after tumbling off a horse during an equestrian competition near Palm Beach, Fla. on Friday.
Nkulikiyimfura received the tragic news around 1 am local time. He gathered the school’s senior staff at 3 am, and then steeled them to break the news to hundreds of students, who were scheduled to wake before dawn for a Saturday morning group run.
“Many of the children were really distraught,” Nkulikiyimfura said. “Anne was more than a founder of the school. She had a really strong influence on their lives.”
“She was a mother to them,” he added.
Psychologists and teachers held sessions for the students throughout the day and will continue to be available in coming days, the director said. Classes will be cancelled for several days of mourning as the school awaits word from Heyman’s family about funeral and memorial arrangements.
Heyman and her husband founded the school nine years ago. She hoped to use Israel’s kibbutzes, which sheltered Jewish orphans after the Holocaust, as a model to help children who lost their parents in the Rwanda genocide, in which 1 million people were killed in a few weeks.
Nkundunkundiye said most of the several hundred students know little about Judaism. But they feel a deep kinship with the Jewish people due to their shared experience as genocide victims — a link that Heyman nurtured.
“The Holocaust has the same history that we face, the same tragedy,” the young man said. “She had an inspiration from Israel, how they dealt with it.”
Even after the school opened in 2008, Heyman was a regular and frequent visitor the school, coming four or five times a year on trips lasting several days at a time.
Students recalled her inspirational talks, where she would encourage them to help build Rwanda by making the best of their unusual opportunity to get a high-quality education.
The school’s director said Heyman told children to look at the school as a kind of “candy store” where they should grab whatever they could that would help them grow as individuals, and Rwandans.
“We will honor her life,” he said. “We won’t let that message die.”
Nkundunkundiye, the recent graduate, said students especially respected Heyman for spending so much time with the students offering one-on-one guidance and advice about overcoming the everyday challenges of life.
He said the biggest loss to the school — even greater than any possible financial blow — would be her absence to future generations of students.
“We are like the seeds she planted and we want to be the fruit that grows,” he said. “I have her words in my heart, today and for ever.”
Contact Dave Goldiner on Twitter @davidgoldiner
Dave Goldiner is the Forward’s director of digital media. Dave is a veteran journalist who has spent two decades working at newspapers in the United States and Africa. A native New Yorker, Goldiner wrote for the New York Daily News, where he covered some of the biggest stories of our time, including the attacks of September 11, along with thousands of stories of hope and heartbreak. He also studied and worked in Southern Africa and has written for publications in South Africa and Zimbabwe. He holds masters degrees in journalism and public administration from Columbia University. Dave can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @davegoldiner