Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza is the founder and chief executive officer of Village Health Works, a grassroots non-profit organization providing compassionate, quality health care to the most vulnerable community members in rural Burundi, East Africa. Deo is the protagonist of The New York Times bestseller Strength In What Remains, which depicts Deo’s journey from medical student in Burundi, to struggling immigrant in New York City, to Ivy League-educated global health practitioner and doctor-in-training. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2014 Dalai Lama’s Unsung Heroes Award, the 2013 People to People International’s Eisenhower Medallion Award, a 2013 honorary degree from Williams College, the 2011 International Medal Award of St John’s University, and the 2010 Women Refugee Commission’s Voices of Courage Award.
After surviving a massacre at a Burundian hospital, where he was a third-year medical school intern, Deo fled to New York in 1994, arriving penniless and without one word of English. Despite the hurdles— low-paying work as a grocery store delivery boy, illness, and homelessness— he eventually enrolled at Columbia University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and philosophy. After graduating from Columbia, he attended the Harvard School of Public Health, where he met Dr. Paul Farmer and began working at the medical non-profit organization Partners In Health. He left Partners In Health to continue his medical education at Dartmouth Medical School.
Deo left medical school to address the urgent need for accessible, comprehensive, and modern health care in his home country. He founded Village Health Works (VHW) to build a healthier, more just, peaceful, and prosperous society in Burundi and beyond. Today, VHW serves the southwestern half of Burundi—a government-mandated catchment area of 150,000 people—including tens of thousands of recently repatriated refugees from Tanzania. VHW operates the nation’s premier health center, agricultural and environmental programs, educational services, women’s income-generating activities, and a number of other community development programs.