June 1994 – New York City: Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza left his empty shopping cart on the sidewalk. He slipped into St. Thomas More’s Church on East 89thStreet to pray. He was alone and out of place in a strange new world. Deo knew no one, spoke no English, and had no money. Sometimes he prayed that God would take him to heaven.
Deo was born in the small African village of Butanza, in southwestern Burundi – the third poorest country in the world. His father raised a few cows and grew enough corn, sweet potatoes, bananas and cassava to feed the family. Deo excelled at the small school run by Catholic sisters where he learned to speak French.
In 1993, Deo was in his third year of medical school at the University of Burundi, when a bloody civil war broke out in his country. His family was slaughtered in Butanza, and Deo, who was working in a hospital in Bujumbura, barely escaped when Tutsi soldiers ransacked the building. He fled on foot to the neighboring country of Rwanda where he spent six months in a refugee camp of 300,000.
In May 1994, when Deo returned to Bujumbura, the father of a medical school friend bought him a plane ticket to New York City and gave him $200 spending money. He had never heard of New York.
Upon arriving in the city, Deo slept in an abandoned, rat-infested apartment building with other African refugees. Then he discovered Central Park and slept under the stars. In his first week, he got a job delivering groceries on foot to wealthy residents in Manhattan. The job paid $15 a day.
While making his deliveries, Deo frequently passed St. Thomas More’s Church and often would slip into the chapel to pray. In late June, he received an order to deliver groceries to the St. Thomas rectory and met Sharon McKenna, a nun who worked there. She spoke French and was a godsend for Deo.
After hearing Deo’s story, Sharon made it her personal mission to find him a place to live. It took a month and a dozen “no’s” before God led Sharon to Nancy and Charlie Wolf. Charlie, a retired sociology professor, and Nancy, an artist, welcomed Deo into their Upper East Side apartment.
In the fall of 1995, with the Wolf’s encouragement and financial support, Deo enrolled in the American Language program at Columbia University. A year later, he became a full-time student at Columbia, majoring in biochemistry.
Upon graduating from Columbia in 2001, using student loans, scholarships, and the Wolf’s financial assistance, Deo enrolled in Harvard University’s School of Public Health. After earning a masters degree in public health, despite having more than two years of med school previously, he began his first year of medical school at Dartmouth University.
When the Burundi civil war finally ended in the summer of 2006, Deo withdrew from med school and returned to his home country. He founded Village Health Works in Kigutu, near his village where he opened a small three-building medical clinic 18 months later. A doctor friend from New Jersey left his own practice to join him. Like Deo, he worked full-time for no pay and together they treated 20,000 patients in the first year.
Later, a company donated a solar generator to replace flashlights. An international group made free medicines available. The clinic grew to 10 beds, with six nurses and 33 community volunteers.
Today, in a country where the average life expectancy is 57 and there is one doctor for every 36,000 people, Deogratias Niyizonkiza is building the 150-bed Kigutu Women’s Hospital, funded almost entirely through private donations. When completed the hospital will offer obstetrics, neonatal care, pediatrics, and basic surgical and mental health services.
“The life I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place my touch will be felt.” Frederick Buechner