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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

A commitment to Rwanda

Noam Shouster ’11 describes her experience spending summers working in Rwanda.

Published: April 1, 2011
Section: Features

Noam Shouster’s typical summer day began early in the morning. Armed with a bag of a dozen soccer balls in one hand, and arts and crafts and perhaps even a drum in the other hand, she started preparing for the arrival of 45 energetic 12 to 13 year olds. Yet this place was anything but typical. Shouster ’11 was in Rwanda, directing Youth 2 Youth, a summer camp for HIV-positive Rwandan children.

Shouster’s involvement in Youth 2 Youth takes root in her upbringing. She was brought up in a small community in Israel called Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam (English: Oasis of Peace). According to Shouster, this community is one of the only places in Israel where Israelis and Palestinians live together by choice. In school, the students learn both Arabic and Hebrew. In an effort to be an active part of the peace process, the community members strive together for coexistence.

Over the years, Shouster has been involved in a variety of youth programs. One program, called Circle of Families, fostered her desire to help children. Circle of Families is a summer camp for Israeli and Palestinian children who are directly affected by the Middle East conflict. Shouster’s experience working with these children made her realize that she wanted to continue this type of work.

Every year, the Sylvia and Joseph Slifka Israeli Coexistence Scholarship awards two Israelis (one Arab and one Jewish) full scholarships to Brandeis. Because of Shouster’s commitment to coexistence between Israel and Palestine, she received the scholarship and came to Brandeis in 2007.

While at Brandeis, Shouster realized she wanted to try something new. “There was always something missing from me. People are always talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and I’m always asked to talk about it … I needed to go somewhere else to find out where other areas have been doing other things so I could get hands-on experience,” she said.

In the summer of 2009, Shouster’s wish was granted. As a Sorenson Ethics Center fellow with the Interdisciplinary Genocide Studies Center (IGSC), she was able to travel to Rwanda and help create a theater festival. While in Rwanda, Shouster was introduced to a women’s health organization called WE-ACTx (Women’s Equity in Access to Care and Treatment). As Shouster familiarized herself with the organization, she immediately felt a connection to their mission. WE-ACTx started in 2003, when doctors discovered that women infected with HIV during the Rwandan genocide were left without care and treatment. WE-ACTx provides Rwandan women with the medicine they need, as well as support groups and youth programs.

One of the American doctors who helped found the organization was familiar with Shouster’s home community. She instantly took a liking to Shouster and requested that Shouster come back the following summer to work with the youth in WE-ACTx program. Shouster was happy to oblige.

“I fell in love with these women. I was doing yoga with them, I was working with them … and it was really amazing,” Shouster said. The prospect of coming back and leading the summer youth program was something the socially conscious student could not pass up. She applied for the Louis D. Brandeis Social Justice WOW Fellowship and was awarded a grant.

Approximately six weeks before Youth 2 Youth began, Shouster arrived in Rwanda for the second time. She began working with nine youth leaders, who would help run the camp. The youth leaders were all HIV positive, and were currently being treated by WE-ACTx. They were chosen as role models for the younger children.

As the summer camp began, Shouster felt an immediate respect for the 45 children in her care.

“These kids are amazing and they are so powerful. The situation is difficult because not a lot of kids have the space to play—to just be kids. There are always these difficulties because in Rwanda, HIV is sometimes thought of as a legacy of the genocide. During the genocide women were being targeted and raped on purpose … and so many of the kids experience hardships because of their status … There’s a lot of stigma,” Shouster said.

The primary goal of the summer camp was to set the stigma aside. The children were in a safe space where they could play and act as children. Through music and theater activities, WE-ACTx taught the children about empowerment and leadership. Musicians from Musicians without Borders and a Latin high school in Chicago also came to work with the children.

In an effort to make the camp a memorable experience, the staff incorporated field trips into the program. Many of these children had never set foot outside of Kigali. Now they had the opportunity to see the safari and museums. For Shouster, this was an unforgettable experience in a variety of ways.

“Here I am booking restaurants and buses and talking to artists in Rwanda—a country that was not so long ago a foreign country to me. Here I am running this program. It’s very exciting for me to think that I’m doing this,” she said.

On one occasion, the camp brought the children to a national history museum. Shouster was left speechless as she described what it was like to see these children walking through the history of their country.

At the end of the session, a final performance was put on by the children. The majority of the time was spent preparing for the big performance. The children were cast as singers, dancers and actors. Shouster described the production as a collaborative process, where they all took part in writing and producing the theater pieces.

“The kids are hilarious—making fun of us and themselves, singing and dancing. [The theater pieces] are about self-esteem, about traveling the world, about job opportunities. It’s about their dreams, about being healthy. It’s about breaking stigma and realizing that HIV doesn’t mean death … and the fact that there is this final project that they get to produce and that they get to be on stage and proud and loud and funny is so rewarding,” Shouster said.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the camp was being able to see the children making an effort to stay healthy. One young woman’s strive to better herself made a lasting impression on Shouster. The girl hadn’t been coming to the clinic regularly for treatment, and as a result she was not chosen to be a youth leader. Yet she would come to the camp regularly to see the children, and she began to regret her lack of attendance.

“She made a promise to me that she would be a youth leader with me the next summer and I guess she’s keeping it up because I’m getting a report from the coordinator that she’s been coming regularly to the support groups and she keeps on talking about how amazing it will be for her to teach dance. It’s a humbling experience when you are present with people who influence you and you influence them. Here is an example of a young woman who has now been taking care of herself for a whole year because she wants to achieve something,” Shouster said.

Shouster will have the opportunity to continue witnessing this young woman’s transformation. She was this year’s recipient of the Davis Projects for Peace, which is awarded to only one Brandeis student per year. Shouster will now be able to return to Rwanda this summer and help expand the youth program.

“I have a huge commitment to Rwanda. Commitment is the key word here … It’s not just a one-time internship. This will be my third time going there, and I intend to stay there and build up on the work,” Shouster said.

Being able to witness the children grow happier, stronger and healthier is a dream come true for Shouster. She feels privileged to be able to see them again.

While she is heavily committed to her work in Rwanda, Shouster acknowledges that she remains loyal to her hometown: “I also have another commitment: to eventually go back to Israel and Palestine and take the tools that I’m gaining from this work and make things better in my home also. This is my overall commitment.”