Jewish youth village to help heal Rwanda
ISACHAR MEKONEN is an Israeli success story, an Ethiopian immigrant boy who made it as a company commander in the paratroops and a service manager in the country’s national electricity corporation.
His school days as a boarder at Yemin Orde — an innovative, British-backed youth village in the Carmel foothills — gave him the confidence to beat racial stereotyping.
When his military instructors told him he lacked qualifications, he proved them wrong by graduating as one of the top officer cadets of his year.
Now 40, and a father of three, he is taking his can-do message back to Africa. He heads a team of Yemin Orde’s Ethiopian Jewish graduates helping to set up a similar village in the Central African state of Rwanda.
It aims to rehabilitate some of the 1,200,000 orphans of the 1994 massacres that killed more than 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority.
“When you feel good, when you feel strong, you can make other people feel strong,” Mr Mekonen, an athletic giant of a man, told the JC. “With my story, I feel I can help the boys who went through the genocide.”
The village, known as Agahozo Shalom, is due to open in two years’ time. It is a partnership between Yemin Orde, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the New York-based Heyman-Merrin Family Foundation and a Rwandan non-governmental organisation.
Nine Rwandan educators, social workers and counsellors spent a week learning how Yemin Orde, named after the pro-Zionist British war hero Orde Wingate, heals its young charges under the twin Hebrew slogans of “Tikun Halev” [mending the heart] and “Tikun Olam” [mending the world].
Chaim Peri, the veteran principal of the youth village, explained: “Our Tikun Halev programmes create an aura of parental wholeness in the absence of parents. Tikun Olam gives the children a sense of community in the absence of a community.
“One aims to produce a functioning head of household and, on the other hand, a person who contributes to his community.”
Thomas Bazatsinda, a member of the Rwandan delegation, was impressed by Dr Peri’s achievements with young Ethiopians. “I know Ethiopian history and their environment. It’s very close to our environment. If his programme is successful in training Ethiopian Jews, it can be successful with us.”
The bonds are growing. “The Ethiopian Israelis are first and foremost Africans,” said Jean-Pierre Nkuranga, who watched from hiding while Hutu neighbours slaughtered his parents and four of his brothers and sisters.
“There is no need for explanations. They know what we’re talking about. They came here from Ethiopia and were able to thrive and survive. That’s a source of inspiration.”
Eugenie Mukanoheli added: “We have some of the same customs. Some of the handicrafts we saw here are familiar. We even eat the same way, using our hands to scoop up paste made from sorghum.”
Isachar Mekonen agreed, revealing more, perhaps, than he intended: “I feel at home in Rwanda. The boys there are like my brothers. When I visited their museum of genocide, I cried. I felt like family. I didn’t cry like that at Yad Vashem.”
Isachar Mekonen (left) with one of the Rwandan educators at the Yemin Orde youth village in Northern Israel