Anne Heyman, Who Rescued Rwandan Orphans, Dies at 52
When Anne Heyman learned in 2005 that the genocide in Rwanda had orphaned 1.2 million children, she saw a glimpse of salvation for the country in the experience of Israel.
“It popped out of my head: They should build youth villages,” she told The New York Times last year.
Ms. Heyman, a South African-born lawyer who had given up her legal career in New York to devote herself to philanthropy, was thinking of how Israel, as a new nation state in the late 1940s, had welcomed and cared for tens of thousands of children who had been orphaned by the Holocaust. The Israelis set up residential communities called youth villages to nurture them.
“Israel had a solution to the orphan problem,” Ms. Heyman, a supporter of Jewish causes, told The Jerusalem Post last year. “Without a systemic solution, this is a problem that won’t solve itself.”
Ms. Heyman knew no one in Rwanda and little about the country, but she plowed ahead, raising more than $12 million; recruiting expert help from Rwanda, Israel and the United States; winning the support of the Rwandan government; and acquiring 144 acres in a setting of lakes and hills in eastern Rwanda. She then built a village of 32 houses for orphaned teenagers, setting it high on a hill, she said, “because children need to see far to go far.”
She died on Jan. 31 at a hospital in Delray Beach, Fla., after falling from a horse while competing in a masters jumper competition at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington, Fla. She was 52.
The cause was cardiac arrest brought on by a head injury, said Marisha Mistry, a spokeswoman for Liquidnet, an Internet stock-trading company founded by Ms. Heyman’s husband, Seth Merrin. Ms. Heyman had homes in Florida, Manhattan, Westchester County, N.Y., and Israel.
When the village for orphans opened in 2008, a long line of teenagers, alone and shattered, stood in the blazing sun holding paper bags containing all their possessions. Entire families of some had been wiped out, and they had no photographs. Some did not know their birthdays, or even what their real names were.
At first, almost all who came had been orphaned by the genocide committed in 1994 by ethnic Hutus against the minority Tutsis and the Tutsis’ moderate Hutu supporters. Later, children of parents who had died of AIDS began arriving. Other vulnerable children were also taken in.
Ethiopian Jews who had grown up at a youth camp in Israel were the first counselors. Housemothers were hired locally to make the houses into homes, often the first the youths had known. Many of the women had lost their husbands and children to genocide.
Today the village houses about 500 youths, who go to high school, work on a farm, learn trades, record gospel music and, most of all, feel a sense of belonging.
The camp was named Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village. “Agahozo” is a Kinyarwanda word meaning “a place where tears are dried.” Shalom is Hebrew for peace. Reflecting this thought, residents do not identify themselves along tribal lines.
Ms. Heyman, who made Hebrew the first language of her own children in New York, saw Agahozo-Shalom as an expression of her Zionist ideals.
“It is a way for us to share those values with the non-Jewish world,” she told The Jerusalem Report in 2007.
Emmanuel Nkundunkundiye, 21, a recent graduate of the village school, told the Jewish American newspaper The Forward, “The Holocaust is the same history that we face, the same tragedy.”
Anne Elaine Heyman was born in Pretoria, South Africa, on June 16, 1961, the second of four children, and was raised in Cape Town. She moved with her family to Boston at 15 and became active in Young Judea, a Zionist youth movement. She spent a year of high school in Israel in a Young Judea program and met her future husband there.
She is survived by him; their sons Jason and Jonathan; their daughter, Jenna; and her parents, Sydney and Hermia Heyman.
Ms. Heyman graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982, then spent another year in Israel before going to George Washington University Law School. In 1984, she transferred to Columbia Law School and graduated the next year. After two years of private practice, she became an assistant district attorney in Manhattan, prosecuting white-collar crime. She quit to devote herself to her family after her son Jonathan was born in 1994.
Ms. Heyman began her career as an activist and philanthropist while at home with her children. She volunteered for Dorot, a Manhattan-based organization that serves the elderly, and became its chairwoman.
One of her first steps in her Rwandan mission was linking up with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which had set up youth villages in the Americas, Europe and Africa. Her principal model was the village of Yemin Orde, one of 50 youth villages in Israel. It has taken in orphans and other needy children from around the world.
She also built one of the largest solar energy plants in sub-Saharan Africa; it contributes power to the rest of Rwanda as well.
Ms. Heyman had plans to make the village self-sustaining, so that major western donors, like her husband’s company, would not always be needed.
Called “Mom,” “Grandmother” and an angel by the youths, she came to the village four or five times a year, staying for several days or more.
Agahozo-Shalom’s announcement of Ms. Heyman’s death quoted a Rwandan proverb: “Death is nothing so long as one can survive through one’s children.”