HOPEMAKERS: Rwandan Genocide Orphans Grown Up and Leading from the Heart

General Topics: 

They were young children in 1994 when Rwanda experienced the genocide that left 800,000 of them orphaned.  In the wake of the violence, Rwanda’s social structure collapsed, severely affecting schools, health care, and the economy.  Meeting the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing and education overshadowed the daunting task of healing the orphaned children’s traumatic memories, injuries, illnesses, and fears.  UNICEF estimates that 96% of the children witnessed the massacres, and many children who survived were mutilated and raped, resulting in an unprecedented level of trauma among children. 

In 2007, Lori Leyden, Ph.D., traveled to Rwanda with her team to work with orphaned genocide survivors and orphaned heads of household (children caring for other children).  After Lori worked with the kids using energy psychology techniques, their trauma outbreaks were reduced by 90%, a significant relief in a situation where 200+ teenagers share a one-room dormitory.  Lori uses a “train the trainer” model.  She has now worked with over 550 orphans and other genocide survivors, and those young people have trained hundreds of others.

Lori Leyden (near center front) with orphan genocide survivors, Rwanda


In Lori’s work, trauma healing is the first priority.  There were times, though, when she wondered if it would even be possible to heal the depths of the traumas, the intrusive memories, nightmares, and sense of hopelessness that have been the daily reality since 1994 of these young people.   Looking back, what struck Lori and members of her team most clearly was the resiliency and human dignity they witnessed in the kids.  Lori realized that if these kids, with all the horrors they had endured, were willing to try to forgive, then there truly was a potential within all human hearts for world peace.

“Now we have hope and we know this is not our burden alone to carry.  Forgiveness is so hard but we are willing now because we know we need each other.”    --Celestin, Student Leader representing orphan genocide survivors.


Lori and her team work to heal a student’s trauma

In 2008, Lori and her team decided to include celebrations in their work.  They started with birthdays.  With all the kids in a big circle, Lori called out “January” and all the kids with birthdays in January were to enter the center of the circle to be sung to and celebrated.  Nobody moved.  “February,” called Lori . . . again, nobody moved.  Month after month went by until finally at “September,” with the center still empty, Lori and the team realized that these kids literally did not know their birthdays.  Having grown up with no loving families to mark their birthdays as important events to celebrate, “Happy Birthday” was not part of their reality.

Lori’s vision extends far beyond healing the trauma, as critical and foundational as that work is.  The orphans, now ages 16 to 25, are graduating high school in a country still not fully on its feet, and they find themselves with a diploma but few options for employment.  Hope is still scarce.  Thus, economic sustainability comes next—the young people need to be able to earn a living.  Lori’s model of “hand-up, not hand-out,” is evolving as the first 12 young people, called “Ambassadors,” have graduated her Project LIGHT program.  Two Ambassadors are in college, and two have obtained driver’s licenses (hard to do in Rwanda), so will be employable in professions that require driving.  And all the Ambassadors are learning entrepreneurship, having launched a soap-making business.  The lush landscape of Rwanda provides ample ingredients for making soap, and all 12 Ambassadors are learning all aspects of the business.

“Before I did not believe I could be an entrepreneur.  Now I can start businesses in order to help myself, my community, my country and our world.” 

            --Desire, Project LIGHT Ambassador

Lori is teaching the kids to become heart-centered leaders, with the ultimate goal of having the kids themselves take ownership of the project.   Lori shares her vision:

Imagine an international youth healing center where young people receive emotional healing and training, real opportunities for economic independence and the freedom to become heart-centered leaders. With advanced technology to have real-time interactions between these young people, students, donors and our visionary Resource Partners in the fields of education, healing arts, business and entrepreneurship.”

Ultimately, Lori’s vision includes Youth Healing Centers like this all over the world, easily linked with communications made possible by today’s technology.

Rwandan orphans skyping with American students.

Lori’s vision has captured the hearts of American children who want to help.  Middle school students in Santa Barbara, California, raised money for essential humanitarian projects at the orphanage such as water storage tanks and electricity.  And one young man recently gave his Bar Mitzvah gifts to Project LIGHT, a total of $6,450!   Asked how Project LIGHT had inspired him, this 13-year-old related, “Genocide is one of the worst things that can happen to people. We should have already learned “never again” but it is still happening. What you are doing is helping to prevent it by helping people understand each other better and giving young people a chance to be leaders and make their way in the world. More people should know about this program because it will help a lot of people. It should be bigger than it is. That’s why we need people to donate…”

Lori believes we are all connected through our hearts' desires to love, to be loved, to live a meaningful life and to have a bright and peaceful future. When we honor our oneness and act as One Heart we can accomplish anything.”

The beautiful teaching of the Dhammapada, that each person carries the light of the world within themselves, is echoed by Yvette:  “You taught us to love ourselves.  These lessons helped me realize I can make a difference.  Happiness is for everyone.  We are ready to become the Light of the World.”

Yvette, Project LIGHT Ambassador

Lori calls them Ambassadors.  As they go about their volunteer work of teaching what they’ve learned in Project LIGHT, their community now calls them “HOPEMAKERS.”

Learn more about Project LIGHT, Lori’s vision, and how you can help: www.ProjectLIGHTRwanda.com


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