Deogratias Niyizonkiza has a knack for turning strangers into friends, which is just the sort of gift needed to mend rifts in the world.
His escape from slaughter in Burundi and his return to establish a remarkable medical facility in the village where he grew up was the subject of a 2009 book by Tracy Kidder, “Strength in What Remains.”
But the story is not just Deo’s. He’s in Seattle this week talking about his efforts, and he notes that many of the friends who made his vision come true are from around Puget Sound. People like Justin Hanseth, who grew up on Bainbridge Island and told me: “I’m from Seattle, and I have it pretty darn good. I wanted to go be of service somewhere.” Hanseth, who has a business administration degree from Seattle University and an MBA from Willamette University, spent a year in Burundi helping to improve agriculture in the village.
Village Health Works, which started as a small clinic, provides a whole range of services from health care to education, and it has become a place not just to heal bodies, but to sow peace and renewal.
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It has been so successful in large part because it is not an outside imposition, but an empowerment of the local people. Ninety-nine percent of its staff are local. Give people half a chance and they will lift themselves out of despair.
That has been a theme in Niyizonkiza’s own life. He grew up in Kigutu, a village in Burundi — torn by war for decades, and one of the poorest countries in the world.
Niyizonkiza was a third-year medical student when a fresh round of fighting between Hutus and Tutsis broke out. He narrowly escaped death on several occasions and eventually, a friend helped him get out of the country. He made his way to New York City in 1994, where he arrived speaking no English.
He worked making deliveries for grocery stores and shared an apartment with other immigrants until he could no longer afford the rent and moved into Central Park. A woman who was on his delivery route saw him there and eventually arranged for him to stay with a couple, a sociologist and an artist, who helped him get into Columbia University.
Niyizonkiza had never really left the horrors of that region behind. He told me he double-majored in philosophy because he wanted to understand, “What is this human nature, that can be so strange that neighbors and friends can be enemies.”
And he wanted to understand it because he wanted to do something about it.
“I knew I was not going to get into politics,” he said. So he decided to build on what he knew, medicine.
He went to the Harvard School of Public Health, where he met Dr. Paul Farmer, who is famous for his work in Haiti, and got involved with Partners In Health, then he went on to Dartmouth Medical School.
He took time away in 2005 to go to Africa and help in Rwanda. He said, “I went back to New Hampshire with these memories of mothers dying because of no medical care. These memories I couldn’t put aside.”
He left school to build a clinic in his village with help from the villagers. He said he began to see hope grow as Hutu and Tutsi worked together building a road to the clinic site, and then building the foundation side by side. They had to talk to each other. They had to think about their perceptions of themselves and others.
At Dartmouth he’d met fellow student, Kris Sherwood, who grew up in Port Townsend. When Niyizonkiza left medical school to start Village Health Works, Sherwood helped.
Another local, Joe Alsberge, heard about the project and became one of its first volunteers. He put off medical school at Cornell for two years to live and work in Burundi. He told Hanseth about the project.
Andrew Haring, who was then a vice president for SonoSite, provided ultrasound machines for the clinic and started the program’s Seattle advisory committee. He’s now VP and general council for Talking Rain Beverage Co.
Sherwood is now a Global Health Fellow in the University of Washington School of Medicine and Alsberge is a resident at Virginia Mason.
The president of Burundi has praised Village Health Works as the best development program in the country.
Niyizonkiza has received numerous international honors, but there is no secret to his success — or if there is, it is just that he is one of the villagers and can see, “They are human beings. They are not stupid just because they are poor.” He values the community and all that he does is in collaboration with them.
So he comes to Seattle with a message from his success in Burundi: “It can teach the world what is possible,” he said. “And give one hope that we shouldn’t run away from problems. We should confront them,” by working together.
Niyizonkiza gave the keynote lecture Wednesday at Global Washington’s annual conference. (Global Washington is an umbrella group for organizations that work in international development.)
He’ll speak Thursday afternoon at the University of Washington Ethnic Cultural Theater, 3931 Brooklyn Ave. N.E., Seattle, 3:30- 5 p.m. in a program free to the public. His topic is “Opportunities to Heal and Change a Nation Forgotten.”
Friday, he will speak at the Pangea Giving for Global Change 10th anniversary celebration, at Impact Hub Seattle, 220 Second Ave. S., from 6-9 p.m.
It’s free, but registration is required, www.pangeagiving.org.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com