Supporting the Survivors – we speak to David Russell, Director of SURF

David Rusell, Director SURF with Odette Kayirere, Executive Secretary of AVEGA

Survivor’s Fund (or SURF as they are often known), have been helping the survivors of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 for the last 14 years. They support a diverse range of services for victims in Rwanda, as well as supporting survivors in the UK.

In particular, they work in very close partnership with AVEGA, the Association of Genocide Widows of Rwanda, and through Buzzbnk they hope to fund the Widowed Survivors Livelihood Project providing secure, sustainable employment and psychological support for widows as the 17th Anniversary of the genocide approaches.

I spoke to Director David Russell, who has been at the helm for the last 2 years, though previously worked with SURF for 5 years as a consultant. He took over from Founder Mary Kayitesi Blewitt OBE in 2009.

“When Mary visited Rwanda in 1994, just after these horrific events had taken place, some of the first survivors she came into contact with were widows. In 1995, she helped some 40 or 50 of them to register AVEGA as an NGO, and one of SURF’s primary aims is to raise money for this astounding organisation.”

AVEGA, with SURF, provides widows and their dependents with HIV/AIDS care and support, mental health care, shelter and financial empowerment and security through income generation schemes. “AVEGA acts as an umbrella,” David explained to me. “The various income-raising schemes underneath this umbrella have primarily been agricultural based – cash crops, dairy herding, and other activities, but over recent years we have been developing other sustainable initiatives making handicrafts and artisan goods, particularly given the now aging population. They’ve been very successful, and there’s a good market for the goods”

Women sewing

They’ve been successful indeed – SURF’s first project in this area was in partnership with US-based NGO Indego Africa. “Indego Africa secured purchase and advanced orders on a wholesale basis for goods such as tote bags, supporting 4 local artisans co-operatives. The products were sold locally too, as well as to this international market.”

“This is what we want to replicate with a new group with funds raised through Buzzbnk.”

The new group is a group of 25 remarkable widowed survivors – again members of AVEGA. These women, starting from the most difficult of circumstances, have organised themselves into their own cooperative, and if SURF raises their target amount of £1,240 through Buzzbnk, they will benefit from an intense series of training programs in financial management, literacy, and sewing.


This training could have fantastic results: “With a surge in confidence and skills that the training will bring, their co-operative will be positioned to develop and deliver a wide variety of textile products to the international export market to generate sales and revenue for the women members.”

David, along with the rest of the team at SURF, support all of this vital activity with astoundingly little resources. “I’m the only full time employee!” David tells me. “There’s also a Rwandan office with 5 staff – a monitoring and evaluating office. In the UK we deal with advocacy, communications and fundraising, and about 3 times a year I’ll go over to Rwanda.”

SURF also has an active pool of 10-15 volunteers that support David and SURF’s work. “They’re mostly young people – helping translate documents, awareness raising, organising events like film screenings, and providing lesson plans for teachers in schools.”

Education is another area in which SURF is very active here in the UK, with a variety of different projects on the go. One project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, saw students filming UK based survivors about their experiences of the genocide (you can see the finished films on SURF’s website here:

With such a diverse programme of activity, I asked David about the successes and challenges he’s encountered with SURF over the last 7 years. The success stories were easy: “In 2005/2006 we secured a £4.25 million grant from the Department for International Development (DFID) on the 10th anniversary of the genocide. The funding provided care and support for 2,500 HIV positive women survivors who had been abused, and their dependents, for 5 years.”

As for challenges, David instantly cited the challenges the survivors themselves face as being the most difficult aspect of the job. “The other thing is that the media lose interest the further away from a human tragedy like this we get. If anything the issues are getting more pressing, particularly as many of the survivors are now ageing. That’s why initiatives like the Widowed Survivors Livelihood Project are so important.”

And what about in 10 years time? Where will SURF be? David’s answer is simple: “Hopefully not around! If we’ve done our job properly and our partner organisations are all self sufficient, then our job will be done.”

Happy faces

To see a short film about the project, please visit:

For more on the project visit:

Philippa Dunn @ Buzzbnk

About FundIt.Buzz

FundIt.Buzz (formerly Buzzbnk) is an online marketplace connecting social ventures with backers, supporters and cheerleaders.
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2 Responses to Supporting the Survivors – we speak to David Russell, Director of SURF

  1. Pingback: Support « Survivors Fund Blog

  2. Jaemin says:

    A Journalist asked Christine Shelley, spokesperson for the State Department dunrig the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, was asked “How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?” This statement captures the international community’s options and efforts in stopping the Genocide in Rwanda. I fully understand that there is a large gap between what is ethical and moral and what is political and in the best interest of the state. But in a democracy, the best interest of the state is primarily based in what is preserved to be the best thing to do by the people. Do the American people or white/Europeans turn a blind eye to the issues in the Continent of Africa? In this class I have learned how little I know about the Continent of Africa. A year after the Rwanda Genocide, American troop’s lead NATO forces into Bosnia, which was suffering from Ethnic Cleansing (classified as less then acts of Genocide or Genocide).

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