The Challenge: There are young girls all over the globe who are not able to get an education like their male counterparts.
The Solution: Richard’s Rwanda-IMPUHWE.
The Teen Hero Who’s Making This World A Better Place: IMPUHWE means compassion in Rwandan, and that is the perfect word to describe Seattle native, Jessica Markowitz. Jessica was 11 when she met Richard Kananga, a Rwandan human rights advocate. Richard had survived the genocide in Rwanda and was working on restoring his homeland. Jessica was mesmerized by his talk and started raising funds for the Rwandan girls who were denied access to education.
IMPUHWE also stands for “Inspire and Motivate Powerful Undiscovered Hope for Women with Education.” Jessica’s program focuses on helping the girls in a rural district called Nyamata. Through schooling and vocational training, Jessica and IMPUHWE have empowered a whole new generation of hopeful young women to become wage earners and leaders in their communities. She has also led annual trips to Rwanda for American students so we can start bridging the gap between young leaders of today.
Jessica is currently in her second year at The Gallatin School at New York University, where she is studying social justice and human rights. She’s also excited by media and film. Jessica is so grateful for the support and inspiration of the Helen Diller Family Foundation. She won a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award for her incredible work.
We caught up with Jessica between classes to ask a few questions about what it took to get here.
What is your favorite food?
Pesto pasta with fresh parmesan.
Your favorite song?
That’s so hard. Right now I’d say, “What do You Mean?” By Justin Bieber is one of my tops.
Your favorite thing to do with free time?
I love being outdoors. I love walking and eating and dancing.
How did you first meet Richard?
My dad is originally from South Africa—so I’ve been connected to the continent. And my family was asked to host Richard who was going around the U.S. speaking about the genocide as a survivor himself. So I was 12 years old at the time and going to an all-girl’s school and he told me a lot of stories about young girls my age who could no longer go to school. My great uncle had survived the Holocaust and I kind of put things together. Holocaust and genocide these sounded really similar…something about when he told me these stories about girls my age…was really mind-boggling for me.
What was that first trip to Rwanda like?
We started a small club at my middle school in October of 2007. And then that summer we took a trip to go meet these girls and see Richard and see what we were raising this money for and was this something we could keep doing. So I first met the girls and saw some of their homes. That first trip was when we realized this was something real we were doing.
And you’ve been there 11 times now? What’s that like?
Every year I’ve gone with my mom. And then my bat mitzvah year, my whole family came along with some cousins. And then very other year we’ve had a small group of teens from the U.S. coming to help tutor. Whether they’re from my high school or cousins or friends of friends. We’ve brought over anywhere from 12 to 30 kids over.
How do you tutor these girls?
Their English is pretty broken, and not incredible but they still have adequate language skills in English to the point where we can explain what certain words are. We do very simple tutoring and obviously some of them should be at a higher level, but we’re still able to use simple English and simple books. Really it’s really just a time to get to spend time with them, get to know them, and realize that there really aren’t that many barriers between us despite the geographic distance.
How did you hone in on the Nyamata region?
When I first met Richard and I asked him is there anything I can do, this was a group of kids he had worked with before, and this specific village was hit by the genocide extremely hard and there’s a memorial right by where the girls live which was a church that a lot of them were to to find safety and then ended up being killed. It’s just a really sad situation for a lot of them. Really every village has been impacted, but this one could use a lot of support.
What’s the biggest challenge in raising money for your cause?
When you’re working in places where there is so much poverty, it’s difficult to not want to try and help everybody with every single issue. For instance, we have girls who only have one parent and the sister needs help or one of them comes to us and says they have malaria or one of them comes to us and says they have a sight problem and they can’t see. There’s all sorts of things that happen, and because we’re so connected to these girls we know them, we know their families. We’ve known them for ten years now. So it’s difficult to just turn your back and say sorry.
I’d say one of the hardest things is just trying to support their education and not trying to help them in every way possible because there are so many other issues that come into play.
What’s been the biggest reward from this work?
One of our girls Grace, who when I first met her was really excited, enthusiastic. You could see there was a lot of potential in her. She ended up testing well enough for us to get her into a much better school that wasn’t just a village school. And she became the head of her class and was excelling in her grades and we actually sent her over one year to come and speak in Seattle about how she was doing…and we got really close…she continued to do really well and was such an example of the tangible impact you can see when you give a girl an education. Just saying giving education is important is one thing but when you see it – this girl lost both of her parents to the genocide and lived with her aunt. And she can tell her aunt, I’m going to school. I’m going to come back and support you. She just got into university. She’s a great example of why we do what we do.
If you could have pesto pasta with anyone and tell him or her about your work, who would it be?
For some reason the first person that’s coming to mind is Michelle Obama. Because first of all I’m a fan, but also I think that she does so much stuff with school and women’s issues and she understands because she’s a woman herself and she’s in a position where a lot of people who look up to her and appreciate her.
Who’s your biggest hero?
There are so many. Right now, I would say Malala. Just because especially in this area of motivation and inspiration she embodies women and empowers women…She is a huge hero to me and I think to everyone doing this kind of work because she is the fire and passion for what education can be for people who aren’t granted it at birth and have to fight for it.
Anything else you’d like to say about the your work or your Tikkun Olam award?
As a grassroots organization that started with bake sales it’s interesting to see where we’ve come and last year we had our first girls graduating high school. We started with them when they were seven years old. So it’s a huge transitional time for our organization…so we decided to start a cooperative—whether it be jewelry or basket weaving. So we can offer job opportunities and help these girls sustain themselves and stay empowered.
What was so exciting to me was I’ve never been religious but the Jewish community has always been so supportive to me. I did BBYO all through high school. And so to be awarded among other young Jewish people who are doing incredible things. And to be supported by this incredible community, the family, and the legacy of Helen Diller—all of these things were really beautiful. It was such a cool experience. And something about it felt so much more significant than an award ever has. It was just really deep and connected with me. It left me really excited and motivated and there was something extra of not just making a difference but doing it through your Jewish values. It was really a great thing to feel and be a part of.
This post is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit www.dillerteenawards.org