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Alum reflects on experience in Rwanda

Contributing Writer

Published: Monday, October 17, 2011

Updated: Monday, October 17, 2011 23:10

Last Tuesday, Noam Shuster '11 spoke about her experiences volunteering in Rwanda with people affected by the genocide.

Shuster grew up in Neve Shalom/ Wahat Al Salam, Israel, a village where she said Israelis and Palestinians live peacefully together. In this environment, she was "constantly surrounded by peacemakers" who inspired her to work in an environment where she could help promote peace, she said.

This brought her to Rwanda, a country torn apart by genocide and whose population was left with emotional and physical damage. In 2009, Shuster became a Sorensen Fellow, a Brandeis initiative that gives a stipend to students to intern over the summer. This gave Shuster the resources to intern in Kigali, Rwanda with the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center.

The genocide in Rwanda took place from April to July 1994, where the Hutu majority murdered many people from the Tutsi minority, culminating in about 800,000 deaths from both sides, according to the Human Rights Watch.

During the internship, Shuster worked with victims of the genocide who were raped and contracted HIV. "Women who survived this horrifying act were actually dying from AIDS," she explained. About 100,000 to 250,000 women were raped during the genocide, according to the United Nations.

In Rwanda, which Schuster said is about the same size as Maryland, the statistics show how everyone was affected by the genocide. She described how "every corner of the country has a memory."

Shuster became a Davis Projects for Peace scholar, an initiative that grants students at a variety of colleges money to work on peace projects, and a World of Work fellow, a Brandeis program that gives financial support for unpaid summer internships. These programs allowed Shuster to continue her work in Rwanda after graduating.

Over the summer, Shuster worked with youths who had HIV as a result of the genocide. The youths, who were from both Hutu and Tutsi backgrounds, worked together to write and produce a theater project. On the last day of the program, their parents and other relatives come and watch them perform.

Shuster explained that a key component of organizing youth programming was "working with a peer mentoring system." She helped teach leadership skills to older youths, around 17 or 18 years old, who were then able to teach and be role models for the younger children, who were around 12 and 13.

In Rwanda, children must be told at age 12 if they have HIV. Many of the kids entered the program just after finding out, and they were not very educated about it. "A lot of the kids in the beginning of the summer program thought HIV meant death," she explained. The peer-mentoring program allowed the older youths living with HIV to show the younger kids that they could still lead a healthy life with HIV.

Even though Shuster brought together and educated HIV-infected youths from both Hutu and Tutsi backgrounds and helped many become strong leaders, she stressed that "there are a lot of problems in Rwanda still."

"I don't want you to think that it's a perfect country," Shuster said.

Shuster is taking the lessons she learned from how the Hutu and Tutsi coexist today and comparing them to possible peace-making situations in other countries, such as Israel. "They do have a lot of problems," she explained. "But they are living side by side."

In the future, Shuster plans to go back to Israel and get a master's degree in public health and continue working on youth and women's empowerment. "And," she added, "I'm flying back [to Rwanda] on Thursday to continue working."  

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