Rancho Santa Fe philanthropists visit Rwanda


Rancho Santa Fe philanthropists Harry Leibowitz and Kay Isaacson-Leibowitz have just returned from Rwanda where they joined international dignitaries – including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, and Rwandan President Paul Kagame – at the 20th Anniversary Commemoration of the Rwandan Genocide.

“The genocide cost the lives of almost 1 million Rwandans at the hands of Hutu militia groups in just 100 days of incredible violence,” Kay said.

The genocide began on April 7, 1994 ostensibly in reaction to the shooting down of an airplane carrying the President of Rwanda and the President of Burundi the prior day. However, this was just the final ignition of a long-simmering hatred of Tutsis by Hutus.

As in so many such situations, the aftermath left more than 10 percent of the population as child orphans, and, unfortunately, the response to this disaster was slow in coming.

“Today, it is a hard life for children in Rwanda, made even harder by the fact that more than 40 percent of the population is 14 and under, which puts tremendous strain on the educational system,” Harry said. “Children as young as 5 and 6 years old can be seen walking by the roadside carrying large loads of firewood on their heads, or jerry cans of water in their hands. They live in miserable conditions with no running water, no sanitary facilities and sleep three and four to a bed.”

DSC_9164Nevertheless, Rwanda’s young population is rising to the challenge to build a better future for themselves, their communities and their country.

“In spite of the difficulty of their lives the children we met and saw were as resilient as any,” Harry said. “They have hopes and they have ambition and even the smallest children gathered at the roadside as we passed in a car.”

In 2009, the couple’s nonprofit, World of Children Award, honored Jessica Markowitz, founder of a high-impact girls’ education program in Rwanda. Jessica’s program, Richard’s Rwanda IMPUHWE, has supported the primary and secondary education of 40 girls in Rwanda. During their trip, Harry and Kay had the chance to visit Richard’s Rwanda and meet girls who have big dreams for the future.

“Jessica and Richard’s Rwanda are changing the lives of these girls,” Kay said, “giving them hope when there was no hope, making them strong women, allowing them to dream of a future that was unimaginable.”

Harry and Kay also visited a children’s village in rural Rwanda that is now home to 500 children who were orphaned by the genocide or who became orphans after their parents died of HIV or other diseases. This was built on the model developed by Chaim Peri in Israel, honored by World of Children Award in 1998.

“The result is an amazing haven in the middle of a terribly impoverished part of Rwanda,” Harry said. “Here, 500 teenagers live and learn together. All orphans, they live in beautifully designed buildings called Home.”

Today, 20 years later, Rwanda is making great strides in trying to put its past behind and build a new society based on tolerance and inclusiveness; but it is not easy.

“Rwanda was supposed to be a failed state,” said President Paul Kagame at the Commemoration Event. “Rwanda could have become a permanent U.N. protectorate with little hope of recovering a national identity. We could have been engulfed in a never-ending civil war with endless streams of refugees and our children sick and uneducated, but we did not end up like that. Instead we chose to stay together and we passed a new inclusive constitution.”

For Harry and Kay, the children at Richard’s Rwanda and Agahozo-Shalom are validation of President Kagame’s optimism.

“This is what is so heartwarming — no matter where in the world they are, no matter the extreme conditions they face, no matter the degree of difficulty of their lives, they are, after all, children,” Harry said. “They can smile, they can play, and if we give them a chance they can and will learn. And who knows, perhaps the next Nobel Prize winner for 2050 was standing by the roadside as we passed, barely dressed in dirty clothes and without shoes, but with hope in their eyes.”

— Press submission