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Story Publication logo February 19, 2007

Part 2: American Students Struggle With Stark Differences


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Several Vermont high school students traveled to Rwanda in December 2006 to meet with teenagers...

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Kigali, Rwanda -- Basketball will have to wait, at least until her novelty wears off.

Kylie Butler, a 16-year-old Thetford Academy student, has been invited by a Rwandan girl to join some young men playing a pickup game on a rough cement court at a primary school in Rwanda's capital. But as she leads Kylie toward the court, a group of children abandon their nearby soccer game and form a tight circle around Kylie and classmate Lizzy King, 17, clamoring for attention.

Set apart by her fair skin and sandy-blond hair among dozens of black faces, Kylie feels a wave of frustration that is becoming familiar during her first week in Rwanda. She wants to blend in with the Rwandan teens, but the differences remain painfully apparent.

For Kylie, Lizzy and Rebecca Young-Ward, a junior at The Sharon Academy, the first week of their 10-day trip to this remote East African country has been filled with this contradiction: While at times they're making connections with Rwandan youth that are almost magical in their spontaneity, they are also contending with stark differences of skin color, language, culture and socioeconomic status. As they try to reach across that divide, the trip has become not just an outward journey, but also an inner one that's compelling them to see themselves and their society in new ways.

All three are active in Operation Day's Work-USA, a nationwide student organization that raised money this spring to launch a job training program for AIDS orphans in the Rwandan capital of Kigali. The Upper Valley students are in Rwanda to meet with young people in the program, called Project Independence; I have been sent by the Valley News to document their experience.

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