Hannah Arendt Center Conferences
[Deo Niyizonkiza: Courage to Be College Seminar Dinner and Lecture Series]

Hannah Arendt Center presents:

Deo Niyizonkiza: Courage to Be College Seminar Dinner and Lecture Series

Monday, March 4, 2019 Blithewood, Levy Institute
6:00 pm – 8:00 pm

Coming to Courage

This event occurred on:  Mon. March 4, 6 pm – 8 pm

As told in the best-selling Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder, Deo’s "coming to courage" was motivated by his challenging childhood in rural Burundi and by the desperation and the atrocities of what he saw around him. It was as if he had no choice in the matter. Quite literally, he had to have "courage to be" to exist at all. Courage to escape (the courage of his friendly accomplices along the way) and courage to land in one of the biggest cities in the world with no common language or resources other than his own bravery. And then, in meeting three extraordinary New Yorkers, Deo experienced acts of extreme kindness which were at the same time acts of great courage. Thus began his new American community, which grew to include Columbia, Harvard, PIH, and Dartmouth. Deo’s return to his destroyed native Burundi was to help bring decency, where it had been lost, through quality healthcare and education based on critical thinking. This itself was an act of courage that begat – and ultimately relied on – the courage of others. Turning swords and guns into shovels and ploughs, clearing land, making bricks, laying roads, is where the community again enlarged: their “courage to be” was the courage to defy recent history and build something out of the wreckage. This community continues to this day in the design and the destiny of Village Health Works (VHW), a community of courageous souls with courageous ambition to be healthy and educated and hopeful – and pass that on for generations to come. Courage is VHW's birthright. Otherwise we would not be building a major teaching hospital – or an academy and teacher learning institute – on a rural mountaintop in one of the hungriest and poorest places on the planet.


Deogratias “Deo” Niyizonkiza, Village Health Works’ (VHW) visionary founder and CEO, is a leading advocate for the most impoverished people in the world. His compassion, expertise, and life experience have made him a key voice in global health and international development. An American citizen, Niyizonkiza was born in rural Burundi, where he attended grade school and part of medical school and left the country during the catastrophic war that lasted more than a decade and took the lives of hundreds of thousands people. He survived not only this man-made tragedy and poverty but also homelessness in New York City. 

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

Despite the hurdles—homelessness, illness, and low-paying work as a grocery store delivery boy—Niyizonkiza 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 nonprofit organization Partners In Health. He left Partners In Health to continue his medical education at Dartmouth Medical School. 

In 2005, with his unwavering conviction that humanity’s progress should be in how we value and honor the dignity of others, including those a world away, Niyizonkiza traveled back to Burundi to establish Village Health Works with the goal of removing barriers to human dignity and progress by creating a healthcare system model in Kigutu, a remote village of Burundi, an East African country and one of the poorest on the planet. His passion galvanized his native community of Kigutu into action. Thanks to community-donated land, a small amount of seed money from American fellow students and supporters, a community of compassionate volunteers, and Niyizonkiza’s leadership, the health center opened in December 2007. Niyizonkiza’s success in building an entirely community-driven health and development organization is unprecedented, and makes Village Health Works unique among NGOs.

A frequent lecturer on global health, Niyizonkiza is the recipient of numerous awards, including an honor by the Carnegie Foundation of New York as the 2016 Great Immigrant: The Pride of America, the 2016 Presidential Medal: Amities des Peuples (Burundi), the 2014 Dalai Lama’s Unsung Heroes Award, the 2014 Wheaton College Otis Social Justice 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’s Refugee Commission Voices of Courage Award.

Date: March 4
Time: 6 pm
Location: Blithewood, Levy Institute


*Students enrolled in the Courage to Be College Seminar are required to attend. The Courage to Be Dinner and Lecture Series brings students, scholars, and experts in diverse fields together to attend to the question of the foundation of moral and spiritual courage in an age when the traditional religious grounds of such courage are said to be weak. These lectures are coordinated with the curricular initiative for students enrolled in the course The Practice of Courage. Learn more about the Courage to Be program and the College Seminar here.