The horrors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide became real to an 11-year-old Seattle girl 12 years after the fact in 2006.
Her family was hosting a Rwandan civil rights activist named Richard Kananga. Though he was only with the family for two weeks, he left Jessica Markowitz with a vivid picture of his country’s genocide, of a time when thousands of people were slaughtered at the hands of extremists.
The hardest part for Markowitz was learning about children – especially girls – her own age. She tried to imagine her own life without parents, a home or education.
Markowitz felt lucky to be a student at Seattle Girls’ School. “I was in an environment where I could be supported with ideas and women empowerment was a big deal at my middle school,” Markowitz said.
Her experience didn’t match what she heard of girls’ lives in Nyamata, one of the many villages affected by the genocide. “Instead of hearing the stories and just moving on with my life, my way [of] dealing with what I heard was to sort of channel that and to have to do something,” said Markowitz, who is now 18 years old.
She started a club at her middle school to help school-aged girls in Nyamata, Rwanda. She named it Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE, after her inspiration, Richard Kananga, and the Rwandan word for compassion, impuhwe. The organization raises funds for school supplies, fees, and uniforms.
Since then, the club has grown to seven chapters, including two in Rwanda, and raised over $130,000, and helped 40 Rwandan girls attend school.
Seven years later, Markowitz is getting ready to start college at NYU in September. She’s faced with the challenge of leaving her organization behind, or trying to take it with her.
She’s been here before. When Markowitz graduated from middle school, she decided to take the club with her to Garfield High. Other members of the club brought it to five other high schools all over Seattle.
“I wanted to continue to be involved by trying to teach others about what Richard’s Rwanda does,” said Ana Walker, student leader for Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE at The Northwest School in Seattle, where ten students are part of the club.
Leading the organization has not always been easy.
“There was [bullying],” said Lori Markowitz, Jessica’s mother and board chair for Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE. “Not everybody knew this because they always saw her as this strong person but when you’re the mother you see the other side of things,” she said.
“Being a strong, empowered woman is not an easy thing regardless of where you are in the world,” Jessica Markowitz said, but the girls she worked with inspired her. “I was teaching girls how to be powerful, loud, and courageous women in Rwanda. It was only right that I myself stood up strong and did not let the bullying get to me,” Jessica Markowitz said.
Still, she’s not sure what the next step will be for the organization.
“I’m definitely bringing [Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE] with me and it will be a part of my life for sure,” Jessica Markowitz said. “I just don’t know how it will play well into college.”