Global public health advocate Deo Niyizonkiza visits Vermont

Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza

Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza, right

Discussions Highlighted Importance of Working Together, Community Members Leading the Way on Public Health Initiatives

Vermont Business Magazine University of Vermont Health Network and the Association of Africans Living in Vermont (AALV) partnered to bring global public health advocate Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza to Vermont for a visit this week. Deo is the founder of Village Health Works. His dedication to community organizing, women’s and maternal health and healing in Burundi have made him a key voice in global health.

Deo grew up in the mountains of Burundi, and survived a civil war and genocide before seeking a new life in America. In New York City he lived homeless in Central Park before finding his way to Columbia University. Deo opened the first Village Health Works outpatient clinic in 2007 – and it has expanded to include offerings around health care, education and food security.

The local community led the foundation of the first clinic that has been serving a catchment area of more than 200,000 people though the doors are open to every patient regardless of where they come from. The clinic has served people coming from within Burundi, outside of Burundi, such as Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Village Health Works recently opened an 85,000 square foot, state-of-the-art teaching hospital, the Kigutu Hospital and Women's Health Pavilion, the first of its kind in Burundi.

“We must never lose hope,” Deo told each group he spoke with, and emphasized the importance of working together on community-based solutions to improve people’s lives – in Burundi as well as here in Vermont.

Deo used his time in Vermont to highlight the importance of working together with community members leading the way to inform real change and improve the health of communities. The visit included a tour of AALV’s New Farms for New Americans garden at the Intervale, a community dinner with Burundian and Congolese community members, an event with representatives from local groups at Hula coworking space, and a discussion with staff at the University of Vermont Medical Center. He also visited Winooski High School.

“Meeting Deo and hearing his story firsthand was so inspirational for me,” said Sunny Eappen, MD, MBA, President and Chief Executive Officer at UVM Health Network. “He really showed us what you can achieve if you are deeply committed to helping others. His story is also an amazing one of second chances, and how caring people can make a difference – both Deo and the people who have joined his cause here in the United States and around the world.”

With Deo’s refusal to tolerate sub-par treatment and unyielding belief that every life has infinite worth, his success and passion in creating a holistic community-driven organization model, is unprecedented and makes Village Health Works one-of-a-kind amongst the world’s NGOs.

“Deo’s visit was poignant for our team,” said Thato Ratsebe, Associate Director and Programs Manager, AALV. “The refugees in our community, including those who serve on AALV’s staff, could see themselves in his story especially when he shared that he was more acquainted with the fear of death than the joy of life. Deo’s journey through incredible hardship to becoming an international leader improving the health and well-being of his fellow Burundians was not only inspiring, but it gave our team and our community hope – that the work we do, the hardships we are supporting refugees to overcome – changes lives for the better.”

A sought-after speaker and lecturer on inspiring approaches to confronting global health inequities, Deo is the recipient of multiple prestigious awards and honors, including: The Dalai Lama Unsung Hero of Compassion Award; The People to People International's Eisenhower Medallion Award; The Carnegie Foundation of New York as the Great Immigrant: The Pride of America; Women's Refugee Commission’s Voices of Courage Award; The Charter for Compassion’s Humanitarian Award; The Burundi Presidential Medal: Amitiés des Peuples; The Otis Social Justice Award, Wheaton College; Honorary degree, Legum Doctorem, Williams College; Honorary degree, Doctor of Laws, Wheaton College; Honorary degree, Doctor of Humanities, Arcadia University.

Deo’s work has been profiled in numerous major US newspapers and academic magazines including The New York Times, The Seattle Times, The Nation and Columbia University Magazine, etc. He also has authored and co-authored a number of articles in journals such as the British Medical Journal, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and Social Research, An International Quarterly.

Deo’s life journey is told in Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Kidder’s book, Strength in What Remains, The New York Times best seller named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, and The Chicago Tribune. 

About The University of Vermont Health Network:

The University of Vermont Health Network is an integrated system serving the residents of Vermont and northern New York with a shared mission: working together, we improve people’s lives. The partners are:

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