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

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