Awakin Calls » Deo Niyizonkiza

Deo Niyizonkiza: Healer, nonprofit leader, global public health visionary

Oct 10, 2020: Healing What Remains

Watch: Video Recording

Read: Call Transcript (Also: Nuggets From Deo Niyizonkiza's Call)

A young man arrives in the Big City with two hundred dollars in his pocket, no English at all, and memories of horror so fresh that he sometimes confuses past and present. When Deo first told me about his beginnings in New York, I had a simple thought: “I would not have survived.” And then, two years later, he enrolls in an Ivy League university. 

This is one of the many reflections that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder gives in his bestselling book, Strength in What Remains, about his subject—and our next guest—Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza. This glimpse into Deo's life seems more myth than reality. And yet, there’s more to his journey. Much more. 

As a young schoolboy in his native Burundi of East Central Africa, Deo witnessed classmates, as well as parents of his classmates, dying by the dozens each year. These were largely treatable conditions, but Burundi had little in the way of doctors, nurses or any healthcare system at all. He always found himself worrying, Who will care for us when we get sick, and am I next? 

Deo studied hard and made his way to medical school in Burundi. But midway through his studies, political chaos and violence erupted in Burundi and its neighbor, Rwanda. He found himself on the run until a classmate gave him an unexpected gift: a one-way airplane ticket to New York City. With only a couple of hundred dollars, no English, and no contacts, Deo found himself sleeping on a mat in Central Park for months. 

Following homelessness, illness, and low-paying work delivering groceries, he somehow learned English, made his way to Columbia University where he studied biochemistry and philosophy, and dedicated his life to healing. After Columbia, he attended the Harvard School of Public Health, where he met Dr. Paul Farmer, and began working at Farmer's nonprofit organization, Partners In Health, which planted the seeds for his life's work. Midway through his studies at Dartmouth Medical School, Deo felt an unwavering call to return to Burundi to help heal his homeland.

Today, the nonprofit organization that Deo founded and leads, Village Health Works, has established a world-class medical clinic in Burundi and, as an entirely community-driven health and development organization, also a culture of renewal. When Deo first proposed this idea to the villagers, they responded at once by bringing their machetes, pickaxes, and other tools to break ground. “So the tools that had been used by some to kill,” Deo explains, “were now being used to build an infrastructure that would be for their own community.”

Though he has been honored by awards including People to People International’s Eisenhower Medallion, and Unsung Heroes of Compassion, presented by the Dalai Lama, such honors interest him only inasmuch as they generate interest in his clinic and in Burundi.

What keeps Deo going? "Where there is health, there is hope." 

Please join us in conversation, along with Dr. Andrew Kim and Dr. Cynthia Li, with this extraordinary change-maker and healer. We will be talking about Burundi in specific, and also honoring the silence of sensitive topics. But wherever we are in the world today, we can resonate with the challenges of a country, or of an individual, split by polarizing forces.

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