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Racing for a Cause

Racing for a CauseEver since Paul Rusesabagina, the inspiration for the film "Hotel Rwanda," spoke at Tufts Hillel in 2005, helping victims of the Rwandan genocide has been at the forefront of Hillel’s mission.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [10.30.09] After a casual dinner conversation in the basement of the Granoff Family Hillel Center in 2005, the lives of hundreds of Rwandan orphans were changed for the better. And on Nov. 1, at the inaugural Tufts Race4Rwanda 5K run, the next chapter in a tale of continuing support for the victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide will be written.

The Hillel-sponsored race will benefit a youth village for orphaned Rwandan teenage refugees started by Tufts graduate and trustee Seth Merrin (A'82) and his wife, Anne Heyman, who were inspired after hearing Paul Rusesabagina speak as part of the annual Moral Voices speaker series. Rusesabagina saved the lives of thousands of Rwandans by sheltering them in his hotel during the genocide and was the inspiration for the movie "Hotel Rwanda."

More than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in 1994 during a killing spree that lasted only 100 days. In addition to decimating nearly 15 percent of the population, the genocide left a legacy of amputees, rape victims and orphans.

When asked what the biggest problem facing Rwanda was today, Rusesabagina responded that in a country with 1.2 million orphans - 15 percent of the population - there is no future for that country unless you can figure out how to help those children.


The Tufts group poses at Agahozo Shalom Youth Village. Photo courtesy Kira Mikityanskaya (A'11).

His message resonated deeply with Heyman, who saw a connection between the Rwandan orphan population and the orphans from the Holocaust who fled to Israel after World War II. Many of the children orphaned by the Holocaust were welcomed into Israeli youth villages, which provided a hybrid of educational and living quarters. Heyman sought to use that model in Rwanda.

In 2007, with the help of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), Heyman founded the Agahoza Shalom Youth Village (ASYV). The village welcomed its inaugural class of 125 students in December 2008.

This past summer, 18 Tufts students visited the village through the JDC's summer short-term service trip program. Visiting the country left an indelible impression on the students, who wanted to do more.

"When we were in Rwanda, it was an experience that changed everyone's lives," said Ben Gittleson (A'11), co-coordinator of the Race4Rwanda. "Meeting the students that this race is helping really pushed us to do something big and to do something great, and to bring it back to our community."

Tufts Race4Rwanda co-coordinator Heather Blonsky (A'11) said the experience of being in a country devastated by genocide was powerful for the Jewish student delegation, as it resonated with their own, distant, past. "There's a certain connection in our people's history that you can't deny."

Three Tufts students pose with a "family" at Agahozo Shalom Youth Village. Students at the village are divided into family units made up of 16 boys or girls, a house mother and a counselor. From left, Becca Hornthal (A '11), Heather Blonsky (A '11) and Emily Rutcofsky (A '11). Photo courtesy of Blonsky.

Tufts Rabbi Jeffrey Summit and President Lawrence S. Bacow visited the youth village for the opening ceremony this past June.

"Fifteen years ago, most of the world stood by as Rwanda literally was torn apart by genocide. We now have the opportunity to do something about it," Bacow said in a press release.

After the race, the organizers are holding a post-race program featuring information and photos from the youth village. A Fletcher School student who survived the Rwandan Genocide will also be speaking about his experience.

Race coordinators are hoping to make progress toward their fundraising goal of $18,000, which will support the needs of the new class of students arriving at the village in December. In the long term, the goal is for the village to become self-sustainable-and with a working farm on site and plans to build a revenue-generating guest house on the property, that goal is in sight.

Blonsky hopes to visit the village again in the future, both to see the changes it has undergone and to reconnect with the students she met last summer.

"My dream is to go back there when this first class graduates," she said. "It's hard to explain to people who haven't gone what an impact the trip made on us, but I think it's evident by the hard work we're putting into the race."

Story by Charlotte Steinway (A'10)

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