Finding Family at the ASYV

May 29, 2014

Thoughts compiled by a Village Fellow

"Constantly [he thought] he saw his father or his mother beckoning him closer.... He wanted to speak to them, but no sound escaped him. He was alone. Yes, he had friends, comrades, and he would have more in the future, but it was not the same. Nothing can interrupt an orphan's solitude." - Elie Wiesel, The Forgotten

Getting to know someone in Rwanda is a different process than where I am from in the United States. Among the questions I am frequently asked here, one stands out in particular: "Do you have family?" In my almost 25 years on this planet, I do not think I was asked this question once prior to my arrival at ASYV. 

Contrast that question with the standard Western introductory experience "So, what do your parents do?" A question to which I readily respond with a statement similar to an elevator pitch. When I first arrived in Rwanda, I did not dare ask how one's parents make a living. I knew of the deep poverty found throughout the country and I thought it inappropriate to assume anyone had a livelihood, especially the guardians or parents of my vulnerable brothers at ASYV.  

Spending time with vulnerable youth is a new experience for me. From summer-camps to Hebrew school, I have grown accustomed to working with children and in many ways, I considered myself a professional. I now realize, I prepared myself more for the cultural differences I anticipated to find in Rwanda than the familial discrepancies that exist between us. What are their interests, their hobbies? Will jokes still be funny when translated into Kinyarwanda? Do they also feel safe knowing that there are people like Chuck Norris and Liam Neeson protecting the world?

When I first met the students of ASYV it appeared as any other first day of school. Nervous students filed out of old school busses, backpacks slumped over one shoulder, nervously evaluating their peers. Only later did I learn that, for many, these backpacks contained everything they owned and their peers would soon become the only family they have ever known.

A fellow Village Fellow recounted an embrace she had with a child on that first day and the gratitude that ensued. "That was my first hug," she was told.

As the weeks progressed, I began to develop a more nuanced sensitivity while spending time with my boys. Perhaps the most significant change in my behavior was no longer feeling able to adequately justify or comfortably complain about an argument I’d had with my parents. 

Much of that sensitivity, while important, is self-imposed. By and large, it is almost impossible to identify the kids of ASYV as orphans solely through speaking with them. They are smart, curious, and mostly cheerful. They are interested in hearing about the first world and my experiences in it. I have found that American life serves as an inspiration and not a source of resentment. Their work ethic only improves as they see what doors can be opened with their newly acquired access to education. Shoot for the moon, the saying goes, and even if you miss, you'll land among the stars.

I am beginning to discover that the blessings I’ve been granted are a means to “pay it forward.” My digital camera enables me to teach my students about technology, as well as discuss concepts such as sight, perception, and memory. Recounting my travel experiences is an ample opportunity to explore geography, history, and cultural diversity. My Western education, aside from being useful for homework questions, helps foster an environment of creativity and encourages critical thinking. 

While I am not fully capable of understanding what life is like for these kids outside of ASYV, my mission persists. My mentor, Mr. Feeny - a character on the popular 90s sitcom Boy Meets World, taught me, "You don't have to be blood to be family." I have always related to that sentiment and my experience at Agahozo-Shalom provides the ultimate case study. Many of ASYV’s kids have never experienced the safety, security and continuity that are derived from a stable home environment. 

At the Village, I am placed in a "family" with 16 boys, a mama, and a big brother. For maybe the first time in my life, I am compelled to seriously contemplate what constitutes as family. Is this arrangement authentic or merely artificial, some "best-case scenario?" Can a historically biological group be so easily replicated with an adequately formed support system?

As Mother's Day has come and gone, I am reminded that such a holiday does not exist in Rwanda. This is probably for the best. Why have a festival that only a few can celebrate? I pray that the world eventually reaches the point when Mother's Day can be universal, when questions such as "Do you have family?" no longer exist.

I continue to think about the notion of family. What exactly constitutes as "family" is difficult to pin down. My gut tells me that Wiesel and Feeny are both right, in the proper contexts. That “family” is one of those concepts that you cannot define but you know when you have it. When it’s real. I know that I have found family at Agahozo-Shalom and I see in my boys that they have found the same.  

Submitted by 2014 Village Fellow Michael Kasdan