Parfait Gasana, weekend manager of the Yale Visitor Center, came to the United States in May 2005 without knowing a word of English.
“I was frustrated. No one could understand what I was saying; I was voiceless,” he recalls.
For a few months, Gasana, then 23, lived as best he could until he met Christine Alexander, founder of the literacy program New Haven Reads. She encouraged him to attend New Haven Reads meetings, and he quickly learned English by reading picture books with the children.
Ten years later, he is returning the favor.
An immigrant from Rwanda, Gasana decided he wanted to create a similar program for Rwandan children and founded the Kigali Reading Center in 2014. Now in its second year, the center serves approximately 100 children every week, with a second center scheduled to open by the end of the year.
Gasana credits the late Alexander and New Haven Reads for his success. After learning English, he graduated from Gateway Community College and earned his B.A. in political science from the University of Connecticut, with a minor in human rights. Gasana also earned an M.A. in international relations from the University of Massachusetts Boston. Seeing the impact education had on his life, Gasana decided to return to Rwanda.
“I thought, ‘What can I do to actually contribute to a sustainable Rwanda, where the devastation of the genocide not only destroyed lives but also human capital?’ Two decades after [the genocide], education is now a priority, but in the years following the genocide it was not, as other issues, such as the delivery of justice, were much more pressing,” he explained.
The Rwandan genocide occurred over a 100-day period during the spring and summer of 1994, when the Hutu majority killed thousands of Tutsi and moderate Hutu. Gasana was born in 1982 as a refugee in Burundi, as his parents had fled Rwanda a few years earlier. However, his family moved back to Rwanda when Gasana was 11 — a few months before the genocide ended as the pressure for them to leave Burundi mounted.
Gasana said the instability and political strife made education difficult for many Rwandans, including himself. While the country is still recovering from the genocide, Gasana thinks Rwanda has stabilized and allows for the kind of work he and the center are now doing.
The center’s mission is to promote English literacy for pre-elementary and elementary schoolchildren through storytelling, a lending library, and one-on-one tutoring. While the center also serves older teenagers and adults, Gasana said the focus is on younger children between the ages of 4 and 13 “to prepare them for school.” With only three full-time paid staff members, the center relies on volunteers to help read to children.
“Any time that is given to us really is appreciated,” he said. “Some people give 30 minutes a week and others stop by for an hour before they leave the country. All of that is important to continuing the work we do.”
Although finding volunteers is a challenge for the center, Gasana said the biggest hurdle is raising money to support the center and especially for shipping costs. The center currently has over 6,000 books in Rwanda, mostly donations, with hundreds more here in the United States. Gasana and his friends pack suitcases full of books every time they visit Rwanda, he said, but he hopes to shift to a more sustainable model in the future.
The children also send letters back to donors thanking them for the books; most write that the book they received is the first book they have ever owned. The center also allows children to check out books on an honor system.
“We tell the children, ‘If you take this book and read it, and then you bring it back, we’ll give you another one.’ The moment we mention that there will be another book given, some kids will go and bring it back within an hour so they can get another one,” Gasana said, laughing.
Seeing the smiles on the children’s faces when they read a new book makes his work for the Kigali Reading Center so rewarding, said Gasana.
“You can see there is hope in the eyes of the children just because someone cares,” he said. “I am where I am today because someone cared and helped me realize that I am worth something. These kids are seeing this as well, and they are enjoying it. The center has become like a home for them.”
To learn more about the center, visit the center’s website.