This is a guest blog post from Monique Schmidt, Program Director at the Akilah Institute for Women. Throughout August, Mightycause will be featuring giving opportunities related to education, mentoring, and literacy as part of Back to School Month
Between the ages of 5-8, when I went back to school, I got a new box of 48 crayons. I would open the box slowly, then carefully, one by one, take out all the crayons and put them in rows on the floor and just look at them. Choices. Options. Potential. They were beautiful.
I now work at the Akilah Institute for Women, a post-secondary training and leadership institute in Rwanda. Our students are mostly 18-25. Most of them, when they were 5-8, didn’t have a “back to school” moment. They were trying to survive a genocide which was decimating their country.
Recently, I had to call Isimbi into my office to ask why she had so many absences from Akilah, she replied, “I got a machete in my head during the genocide. It still hurts.”
Munyana came to my office later and told me that she hadn’t even started school when the fighters killed her parents. Her grandparents took her in, and they fled to the Congo. In the Congo, they killed her grandparents. Some Congolese family took her in. Then, that family had to flee as well. Somehow the International Red Cross found her and brought her back to Rwanda. Miracles happened. In the refugee camp she found one of her brothers and one of her sisters.
Murako was visiting friends in Kigali when the fighters arrived in her village. They slaughtered her whole family. Alone, she survived.
Nope. My students were definitely not mesmerized by crayons before they started school.
Most of them grew up knowing how to run and hide, not play hide and seek. I can do nothing to change the past. However, now, when it’s back to school time at Akilah, instead of a box of crayons, they get to open a new future. Together, we look at it. It’s beautiful.
Going back to school means not starving in the future. Going back to school means getting the knowledge, self-respect, and tactics to stop harassment. Going back to school means stepping out of poverty. Going back to school means learning tolerance and appreciating diversity. Going back to school means going forward in life.
As one of Akilah’s students said, “Akilah is not just about studying, but also about discovering who we are and this will help me become an exemplary leader.”
Akilah’s vision is to transform the lives of young women by empowering them with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to find meaningful employment and to serve as leaders in their communities. For us, “back to school” means giving our students the chance to move past tragic histories and change dark, bleak futures into one with colors, options, and potential.
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Monique Schmidt is Program Director at the Akilah Institute for Women in Kigali, Rwanda. The Akilah Institute for Women opened its doors in February 2010 to an inaugural class of 50 young women. Akilah participated in Mightycause’s 2010 March Goodness competition and made it to the Final Four round by winning the South Region.