Like a lot of us, Parfait Gasana learned to read English from children’s books. Unlike most of us, he was a grown man when this occurred.
Gasana, born in Burundi, was a refugee from Rwanda when he settled in New Haven in 2005. He was surrounded by a supportive refugee community but didn’t speak English. Luckily, a local nonprofit tutored such young arrivals, and he took to their lessons with zeal.
“I learned mainly from children’s books,’’ he said. “Children’s books have pictures, and it was easier to understand the stories.”
After two years, Gasana enrolled in community college in New Haven. That led him to the University of Connecticut, where he earned a degree in international relations and human rights. Now he has finished a year as a graduate student in international relations at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Over the course of this remarkable journey, his thoughts have never been far from Rwanda, the country his parents fled when it became inhospitable for Tutsis. Since its disastrous civil war in the 1990s, the country has had an unlikely rebound. It has come to life economically, and its justice system is being rebuilt. The long-warring Hutus and Tutsis are officially encouraged to put aside their differences and embrace their “Rwandanness.”
But there is one thing young people in Rwanda are still sorely lacking, and it strikes a nerve with Gasana: They have very little access to books.
So along with a fellow graduate student, Wade Cedar, Gasana has founded a nonprofit to bring books — and, by extension, English — to kids from the ages of 3 to 7. The Kigali Reading Center has collected thousands of donated books in Massachusetts and will make its first delivery in a few weeks.
“Rwanda had a very ambitious economic plan, but despite those ambitions we don’t think Rwanda had the capacity to educate the next generation,” he said. “Given that Rwanda has adopted English as its official language, we feel this program will fit right in.”
A group of second-graders at the Edward Devotional School in Brookline collected 400 books and donated them as a community-service project. Gasana lives in Hopkinton, where the town library has made a donation. He has taken books wherever he could get them. He estimates that he has collected about 6,000 of them.
The program has enjoyed institutional support at UMass, as well. Ira Jackson, the political veteran who now serves as dean of the McCormack Graduate School for Public Policy and Global Affairs, raised money for the airfare to deliver the books to Rwanda in August.
This is intended to be more than a book-lending program. The plan is to institute a tutoring program and to encourage students to continue working on their skills at home.
“The program that we’re going to do is going to use very simple tools that we think are powerful,” Gasana explained. “We will have storytime and invite children to the center and read stories to them. So that when they go home after reading at the center they take the books home, so that the process doesn’t just end at the center.”
Gasana and Cedar — the first in their families to attend high school, not to mention college — believe deeply in the value of embracing education early. That concept is just beginning to take root in Rwanda. “My father always told me that education holds the key to breaking the cycle of poverty,” Gasana said.
For all of Rwanda’s unfolding success, building its future starts with the basics.