From dream to reality: Starting a music school in a Rwandan refugee camp

From dream to reality: Starting a music school in a Rwandan refugee camp

By Mary Fanaro, Founder, OmniPeace

Music has the power to connect, inspire, and give hope to people around the world. In the middle of the Kiziba refugee camp in western Rwanda, my organization, OmniPeace Foundation, recently created The Rwanda Rocks Music School Kiziba.The idea behind the school is to show children that through the power of music, anything is possible — including a future for newfound dreams.

The first music Rwanda Rocks Music School was established at Gisimba Memorial Centre, which was originally an orphanage founded by Damas Gisimba. It is now a learning center and after-school program for children.

The second music school was more challenging to get off the ground, as it was the first one in a refugee camp. Kiziba refugee camp is one of the oldest of Rwanda’s six camps — 2016 marked its 20th year in existence. Its current population is approximately 17,000 people, half of whom are under 18. Many of the refugees are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to ongoing conflicts and one of the largest displaced populations in the world.

OmniPeace had just a five-day permit granted by the Minister of Refugees to paint the school, set up the space, bring in the instruments, and do a three-day workshop with the children. Our partners on this initiative, ITEAMS Rwanda, provided us with the space for the school and helped make everything happen. We all agreed: There was no time to waste getting a music school set up for the children of Kiziba!

When we arrived at the camp, we discovered that one of the ITEAMS team members had been a refugee in Kiziba for 17 years. It was incredible to watch this man get out of the van and be greeted like a king. So, though many of our team entered Kiziba as strangers, we were treated like family.

Once we were ready to get to work, the kids in the camp followed us down the path to the space — and got right to work alongside with us! A few others lingered back, which made sense: We had to prove we were here to stay, not just making a mark and then abandoning ship, a pattern they’d definitely seen before in their time in the camp.

On the first day of lessons, Alexis Stein — who’d sponsored the school in honor of her mother, Sharon Haugh, who had passed away from cancer — warmed up the students with some vocal exercises. Then our guitar and drum teacher, Jeymo, connected with the children effortlessly.

As soon as the kids got instruments in their hands, they began playing music as if a missing puzzle piece had snapped into place. They played with such care, anticipation, and playfulness that you couldn’t help but be mesmerized by them.

And so, our music school within a refugee camp was finally a reality. The students were there to stay and so were we! The school will operate as long as the refugee camp is there.

Here in Kiziba, we’ll serve 27 students and can offer guitar and drum lessons — there’s no electricity for keyboards. At our other Rwanda Rocks school in Gisimba, we offer all three classes and serve 30 students.

“When I play the guitar, I feel calm and joyful,” says Destiny, a Rwanda Rocks Gisimba student. “I am so lucky to be supported by our teachers so I can continue to improve my talent and help others do the same.”

“When I play the drums, I feel happy,” says another Gisimba student, Sam. “I feel relaxed and then I can focus on being a good student. I like meeting other kids and how our teachers support us.”


To learn more about OmniPeace and Rwanda Rocks and how you can help, go here.

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