The School of General Studies proudly welcomed alumnus Deogratias "Deo" Niyizonkiza ’01 back to New York City for a presentation and reception on Tuesday, April 27 at the Columbia Club. The founder of Village Health Works, a community health clinic in Kigutu, Burundi, and a student at Dartmouth Medical School, Deo spoke to alumni and current students from 15 of Columbia’s graduate and undergraduate schools about restoring hope to the world’s “forgotten places,” offering his own extraordinary personal journey as evidence.
When ethnic violence between Hutus and Tutsis spilled over from Rwanda into Burundi in 1994, Deo fled the country and eventually made his way to New York City, where he worked a series of odd jobs and lived on the streets of Harlem. When a compassionate family adopted him as a surrogate son, Deo was able to resume his education.
“I wanted to meet new people, to circulate with other students, to help forget some of the things that had happened in Burundi,” Deo said.
After studying in Columbia’s American Language Program, Deo applied to the School of General Studies, where he took premedical courses and majored in philosophy in an attempt “to understand human nature and what I had experienced,” Deo said during his presentation.
Upon graduating from GS, Deo attended the Harvard School of Public Health, where he met Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard professor and one of the founders of Partners in Health. After working with Dr. Farmer and Partners in Health in Haiti, Deo began to think about how to help his home country.
After offering some of his own experiences, such as having a friend die in his arms in fourth grade and burning dry grass to provide enough light for his mother to, without benefit of a doctor or midwife, deliver her own child and cut the umbilical cord, Deo presented some sobering facts. Half of the doctors in Burundi serve its capital city, Bujumbura, even though 95 percent of the population lives in the country’s rural areas, where the few health care facilities that exist are often dilapidated and unsanitary; some have even become de facto prisons where armed guards detain patients who are unable to pay their bills.
“I was lucky I survived,” Deo noted. “But since I did survive, I now have an obligation to help.”
Deo founded Village Health Works in his hometown of Kigutu in 2005. The clinic is not just a much-needed hospital, but a new approach to health care. Village Health Works is at heart a collaboration: community members provided land and construction material, even building a four-mile road so that patients and supplies could reach the clinic, while the Village Health Works staff offers training in sustainable agriculture, soil development, and nutrition to the community.
“Traditional aid is administered from the top down,” said Dr. Richard Deckelbaum, a member of the board of Village Health Works and the Robert R. Williams Professor of Nutrition at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, where he is also the Director of the Institute of Human Nutrition. “By establishing a sense of ownership in the community from the beginning, Village Health Works is developing a new model—call it horizontal.”
While the clinic has already achieved extraordinary success and is beginning to expand, through partnerships with Burundian medical schools and a new woman’s health pavilion that will be completed in December, much still remains to be done. In fact, offers to help came from audience members during the question-and-answer portion of the presentation, and Deo and Dr. Deckelbaum stayed long after the presentation concluded to compare notes with alumni working in public health and other fields.
“It’s always such a wonderful thing to be back home at GS,” Deo said. “There’s a Burundian proverb about the parent-child relationship: ‘Your shoulders will never be taller than your neck.’ GS was like a good parent that opened the door to me, and it made much of my work with Village Health Works possible. I’ll be back at Columbia a lot, because I always have more to learn.”
Alumni attendees responded to the inspiring nature of Deo’s presentation and its testament to the transformative power of education.
“Everyone talks about the fact that each person at GS has his or her own story—and man, is that ever true about Deo,” Susan Feagin, ’74 and the Executive Vice President for University Development and Alumni Relations, said. “It’s a great source of pride for everyone connected with GS and Columbia to realize the role that GS was able to play in his success, and a great reminder to stay committed to helping others who need that same opportunity.”
Additional photos from the event are available on the CAA Facebook page.
Deo's story is the subject of Tracy Kidder's book Strength in What Remains.
The Owl, the GS alumni magazine, featured Deo in the Spring 2009 issue.