When it seems impossible to change your story…

Strength in What Remains is the not-to-miss true account of Deo (short for Deogratias) Niyizonkizain’s prolific American journey written by Pulitzer-prize winner Tracy Kidder. It is at the top of Off the Curb reading list for its lessons in personal leadership: the power of vision to propel us forward and the tenacity and sheer grit sometimes needed to overcome tough, and seemingly insurmountable burdens to change our story.

Deo is a Tutsi who managed to escape the vicious civil war between his people and the Hutus in Burundi and neighboring Rwanda. When the Hutus were on the offense; indiscriminately killing Tutsis they found in their path, Deo was a 24 year old Burundi medical student. He survived genocide by clinging to

the under rails of a hospital bed in the clinic where he worked while everyone around him was slaughtered. Fleeing the clinic after the last of the Hutus had left, and with no living coworkers left to join him, he left on a solo journey of survival spending months on the run from the Hutus. He often crawled along river banks and hid in the bush to survive while he fought off malaria was further challenged by infection and injury.  All the while, he was haunted by the reality that his parents and siblings who had not seen in months, had probably been killed.  

Escape from his circumstances seemed unlikely. Yet, in a stroke of luck we might deem miraculous, an aid worker’s tip led Deo to gain a plane ticket to New York City. He landed at JFK with $200 in his pocket and knew no English. Eventually Deo eked out a living delivering groceries for $15 by day, and slept  in Central Park at night as he tried to move past the troubling images of the war, and the betrayal of those who sacrificed his needs for their own survival. Yet, he also reflected on the strangers who saved him, such as a mother he met in a refugee camp who falsely claimed Deo as her son, risking her own life to help him avoid persecution.

Two years after his escape, complete strangers Deo met in New York, offered him housing and helped him enroll at Columbia University. After further studies at Dartmouth and Harvard, he met of all people famed physician and humanist, Dr. Paul Farmer of Partners in Health. With Farmer’s work as inspiration, and his rising desire to help the tumultuous community he left behind, Deo returned  to his homeland to start a new story as founder of Village Health Works, a clinic he now runs back in Burundi.

If you have any doubt that you can change your own story, read Deo’s.

Pick up a copy of Strength in What Remains.