Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza’s life has been miraculous, filled with unspeakable horror and extraordinary acts of kindness. Born in 1972, Deo grew up in the rural community of Kigutu in Burundi, one of the poorest countries in the world. For 13 years, beginning when Deo was 21, his country and its people experienced the traumas of war and genocide in which hundreds of thousands died. Deo has set out to help heal them and, in the process, to heal himself.
Even as a boy, Deo looked for ways to help his community. “In high school I was the president of a student group that volunteered to build a clinic,” he says. “The governor told us that if we made the bricks, he would provide the roofing. All summer we worked hard, waiting for roofing from the government, but it never came. Then one day a thunderstorm reduced our unfired bricks to mud.” Deo thinks of this disheartening experience often and even called upon it as inspiration for founding the non- profit he leads today, Village Health Works. He explains, “Many of my fellow students from those days died in the war. But they are the people I remember when I help others today.” Deo was luckier than his classmates. When the war broke out during his third year of medical school he was able to flee, seeking asylum in New York. When he arrived, Deo spoke no English and had no job, no home, and no money. His hopes of becoming a doctor were dashed.
Eventually, Deo managed to get hired as a grocery store delivery boy in Manhattan, working 12 hours a day for $15. One fateful day, his deliveries brought him to the steps of St. Thomas Moore church, where he met Sharon McKenna. “Since the day we met, she has never given up on me,” he says. “She is an extremely compassionate person who cares deeply about the world. She found a home for me and helped me even when I tried running away due to embarrassment and shame.” That home was the Manhattan apartment of Nancy and Charlie Wolf, with whom Deo continues to live 20 years later.
The foothold these three caring individuals provided for Deo was all he needed to flourish. He went on to study biochemistry and philosophy at Columbia University, and then returned to medical school. Before he completed his studies, though, his broken homeland drew him back to begin the work of rebuilding. Deo founded Village Health Works in 2006, inspired by his encounters with Dr. Paul Farmer and Partners in Health. He returned to Kigutu with one thought in mind: “Where there is health, there is hope.”
When the Village Health Works clinic opened its doors in 2007, it was a watershed moment for Deo and Kigutu. Hundreds of local people supported the project from the ground up, beginning to stitch their community back together. “There is one story of a woman I will never forget,” Deo says. “She came to help build the road to the clinic. With a sick baby in her arms, she told me, ‘Instead of staying home and watching my baby die, I would rather be here, because at least my contribution might save someone else’s child.’ After we treated the baby successfully for malaria, the woman told me, ‘The treatment you gave was the greatest gift a mother could receive. And this work has a more precious element than you know—ending the crisis.’ Crisis is the word Burundians use instead of genocide. ‘The crisis can end,’ she said, ‘because people have been talking and working together.’”
Village Health Works is growing, serving the community through economic empowerment programs for victims of gender-based violence and a new education center for children. Deo is steadfast in his optimism about the future. He says, “Nothing worthwhile is easy to achieve, but every life saved is important, and can save another life. We can have an exponential growth in goodness.”