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By Karen Herland
Simone Hanchet felt overwhelmed last fall sitting in on a trauma counselling session for women who had experienced genocide, the displacement of war and domestic violence in Kigali, Rwanda.
“I wasn’t sure what I could contribute. Afterwards, a woman said that my presence there (as a Western stranger) was a sign that God loved them…and I realized it really wasn’t about me,” said Hanchet.
The Masters in Public Policy and Public Administration student presented her experiences at a special meeting organized by the Geography Undergraduate Student Society on April 1. Under the theme Projects and Places, Hanchet began with some statistics about Rwanda, a country she had little experience with before she got off the plane last July.
Some of the figures she presented were startling. In a country of 9 million people (the most densely populated of all African nations), 42% are under 15 years of age. The country’s population includes 1.2 million orphans.
Hanchet was able to travel to Rwanda for five months with the Students for Development Program of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada (AUCC). Hanchet was supported throughout the program by William Cheaib at Concordia International.
The situation in Rwanda, and her own interests, led her to Kigali’s association Tubahumarize (which translates into ‘let us console and give them hope.’).
The group initially offered group trauma counselling for women who were dealing with the legacy of the Rwandan genocide, which killed 10% of the country’s population, coping with the loss of loved ones, the violence they had experienced and collective grief. Many of the women had also been raped, Rwanda being a region where HIV infection was often used as a weapon of war. “They say that men were killed with machetes, and women were killed slowly with HIV.”
Hanchet said the organization’s founder recognized that, in addition to support for victims of violence, those using the services also needed hope going forward. Now, the association also offers a microcredit loan program, offering women the means to start or equip their own cottage industries in crafts. Before she went to Kigali, Hanchet and other volunteers raised funds in Canada to buy sewing machines. Upon her arrival, she helped establish classes. She also found herself teaching English as a second language to residents of one of the Commonwealth’s newest additions and teaching yoga. In her capacity-building role, she also wrote funding proposals, designed internal financial and programmatic reporting mechanisms, and developed communications materials for the organization.
“I didn’t really know what I was going to do when I went down there,” she told the students who came to hear her presentation. “I was surprised by how many skills I had to share just by virtue of my Western education.”
Hanchet continues to work with the group, organizing fundraising initiatives here in Canada. She invites anyone to get involved by visiting Tubahumurize’s Facebook page.