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A survivor’s story: From genocide to healthcare visionary

09/06/15 - BOSTON, MA. - Pulitzer Prize winning author, Tracy Kidder and Deogratias Niyizonkiza, the subject of Kidder's book speak on a panel during the First Pages event held in Matthews Arena on Sept. 6, 2016. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“When you survive, you say, ‘Why me’? Then you say, ‘What can I do?’”

The words echoed through Matthews Arena Tuesday night as Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza, the protagonist in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder’s searing Strength in What Remains, and Kidder himself addressed Northeastern’s freshman class at First Pages, a reading program designed, as Katherine S. Zeimer, vice provost for curriculum, noted, to give incoming students “a shared sense of knowledge and purpose.”

It would be hard to find a more resonant choice.

Selected by a committee comprising students, faculty, and staff, Strength in What Remains, which was published in 2009, is told initially through Deo’s eyes. It traces his life’s journey as he, a third-year medical student, narrowly escapes the genocide in Burundi, his home, and neighboring Rwanda, and in 1994 travels to New York City, thanks to the help of a privileged family of a friend. With $200, homeless, and no knowledge of English, Deo gets a job as a grocery delivery boy earning $15 a day.

“I was carrying my tragedies like luggage,” Deo said. “I had so much to share, but I couldn’t talk.”

I try to find interesting stories and write them the best I can. Through Deo my eyes were opened again and again.
— Tracy Kidder, Pulitzer Prize-winning author

Haunted by nightmares of the carnage in Africa, he went on, with the help of compassionate new friends, to earn a degree at Columbia University, become a doctor-in-training, and ultimately to found and lead Village Health Works, a grassroots nonprofit that provides community healthcare and education where it all began, in Burundi.

Kidder, who brought Deo’s story to the world, gave it back to him last night. “I don’t deserve credit for this,” he said. “I try to find interesting stories and write them the best I can. Through Deo my eyes were opened again and again.”

‘Where there is health, there is hope’

Burundi is the poorest country in the world, Deo told Northeastern’s freshmen, projecting on two large screens pictures he’d taken of the area. One showed two young women in a makeshift hospital in 2006 sharing not just a bed but also the needle from an IV. Another fanned across a bench covered with protective gloves that had been washed for reuse on other patients.

Before-and-after shots of patients at Village Health Works illustrated the power of the center’s dignified community healthcare. For one child, abandoned and suffering from malnutrition, just a month of treatment returned him to robust health.

“The power of drugs,” exulted Kidder. “This child was treated with this really exotic medicine known as food.”

Indeed, “Where there is health, there is hope” is the center’s tagline. Building it required “an unparalleled degree of community involvement,” said Deo, quoting Partners in Health co-founder Paul Farmer, who introduced Kidder to Deo. Partners in Health is dedicated to providing healthcare to the poor around the world. Deo recounted how everyone, including children and women, transported the red bricks to build the road the most efficient way possible, given the terrain: on their heads.

09/06/15 - BOSTON, MA. - Students listen to Pulitzer Prize winning author, Tracy Kidder and Deogratias Niyizonkiza, the subject of Kidder's book speak on a panel during the First Pages event held in Matthews Arena on Sept. 6, 2016. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

First-year students listen to author Tracy Kidder and Deogratias Niyizonkiza, the protagonist in Kidder’s book, at First Pages, a reading program that gives students “a shared sense of knowledge and purpose.” Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“So many people say, ‘I am exhausted, I can’t do anything,’” said Deo. “But if each of us could do something, this could be a better world. Educate yourself about the pain of others so you can work to never let people suffer like that again.”

Today’s refugee crisis

Moderator Serena Parekh, associate professor of philosophy and director of Northeastern’s Politics, Philosophy, and Economics program, posed the question on many attendees’ minds: “What can your experience teach us about the refugee crisis today, and how we should respond?”

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Deo. “What is going on in the world comes as a challenge to morality. We must ask: ‘Why is this happening?’ It’s in our nature to treat serious problems in a very superficial way. Doctors give you pills and then you go home. They should send you to the lab to understand the root cause, not just the symptoms. It’s the same for the refugee crisis: What is the root cause of the problem?”

After the presentation, the students were invited to ask questions. One evoked author Elie Wiesel’s Night, his wrenching memoir of surviving the Holocaust, and how the experience left him questioning his faith. How was Deo able to maintain his?

“I questioned everything,” Deo said. “I questioned the very existence of God. Growing up I had gone to Catholic schools but was interacting with children who were dying. The priests would come and say, ‘Pray, pray.’ I debated between becoming a priest or a doctor. But I rejected [that]. Later I was challenged by good people who opened their doors and brought back what I used to believe. Otherwise I would not be here today.”

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