From Poverty To The Ivy League: A Refugee's Story Author Tracy Kidder recounts the story of a refugee from the war-torn African country of Burundi in the new book Strength in What Remains. When Deogratias "Deo" Niyizonkiza arrived in New York City in 1993, he had little beyond the clothes on his back.
NPR logo

From Poverty To The Ivy League: A Refugee's Story

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
From Poverty To The Ivy League: A Refugee's Story

From Poverty To The Ivy League: A Refugee's Story

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

GUY RAZ, host:

A young medical student from the central African country of Burundi barely made it out alive during the Civil War that ravaged his country. Deogratias Niyizonkiza or Deo, as he's known, fled Burundi in 1993 and managed to get to America.

Mr. TRACY KIDDER (Author, "Strength in What Remains"): (Reading) A young man arrives in the big city with $200 in his pocket, no English at all, and memories of horror so fresh that he sometimes confuses past and present. When Deo first told me about his beginnings in New York, I had a simple thought: I would not have survived.

RAZ: That's Pulitzer Prize winning writer Tracy Kidder, reading from his new book "Strength in What Remains." It's the extraordinary true story of Deogratias Niyizonkiza. He braved genocide, extreme poverty, a language barrier and homelessness in New York City to become an Ivy League student, and eventually to found a public health clinic in his home country. And along his journey, Deo found generosity and kindness in the most unexpected of places.

I asked Tracy Kidder how Deo's odyssey began.

Mr. KIDDER: Deo was a young medical student when the Civil War in Burundi erupted. He narrowly escaped from the onset of that war on foot and made about a six months long escape into Rwanda, where the genocide began, the notorious genocide. Escaped back from there to the capitol city of Burundi, and through a series of rather complicated maneuvers, ended up getting on an airplane and going to New York City, to JFK.

RAZ: Mm. (Unintelligible) kind of people don't know much about that Civil War. We remember what was happening in Rwanda, but as you point out, 300,000 people were killed in Burundi over a period of 13 years.

Mr. KIDDER: That's a rough estimate. I don't think anyone really knows how many were killed, but it was a truly catastrophic war.

RAZ: How close was Deo to being killed when he decided to escape?

Mr. KIDDER: I guess about as close as you can get. He was- the hospital he was working in was attacked by rebels. And he ran into his room and hid under his bed but forgot to close his door. And when they came to his doorway and he heard them say, the cockroach is gone, he laid there listening to them and smelling the massacre and then escaped after they had left.

RAZ: Tracy Kidder, how did Deo end up in New York City six months later in 1994?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIDDER: Well, he had a friend who had a European father and a Burundian mother, and he got a visa under false pretences. He kept getting help along the way. And when he got to JFK, he was being questioned at immigration. Of course, he didn't speak any English, and the agents didn't speak any French, and they called over this baggage handler, a guy, as it turned out, from Senegal, who not only translated but then invited Deo home with him. But home, as it turns out, was a tenement in Harlem. And he kind of showed him the ropes of the city. And he ended up working as a grocery delivery boy.

RAZ: Mm-hmm. And along the way, Deo runs into a series of people who sort of save him.

Mr. KIDDER: That's true, really quite extraordinary. He was delivering groceries one day to a little Catholic Church on the Upper East Side and he ran into a woman there, an ex-contemplative nun whom I can hardly begin to try to describe to you, Guy, because I'm afraid I wouldn't do her justice. And I don't think I've ever enjoyed writing about anyone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: This is Sharon McKenna you're talking about.

Mr. KIDDER: Yeah. Yeah, she - you know, I'm not a very religious person, I guess. But if there is such a thing as a holy person, Sharon is that person. She decided that Deo needed a family, and she set out to find him one. And then she found this couple. Charlie is a sociologist and his wife is a quite a wonderful and fascinating painter, Nancy.

I mean, this is a perfectly sane, reasonable couple, and they took in a needy stranger from Africa, who didn't speak their language, who had no means of support, and who might become their dependent for the rest of their lives.

(Soundbite of laughter)

It was really quite an extraordinary act.

RAZ: Why did Nancy and Charlie Wolf decide to take in this refugee from Burundi who they didn't know at all?

Mr. KIDDER: The easiest answer to that is just to say that they are good people. But I think, you know, partly they've had some deep experience of Africa themselves. They've spent quite a bit of time in Nigeria. They've both become quite aware of the Rwandan genocide and horrified by it. They, you know, at some point, just decided to take a chance.

RAZ: Deo ends up living with Charlie and Nancy Wolf for seven years. And in that time, he goes on to gain entry to Columbia and then Harvard. How do you go from being a refugee in Burundi, to sleeping on the streets and in Central Park homeless, to then studying at two of the finest schools in the country?

Mr. KIDDER: Well, first of all, you have to be pretty gifted intellectually, I think, and you have to have to have a lot of desire. You'd expect a penniless immigrant who got into Columbia to major in something lucrative, potentially lucrative, like computer science, you know? Instead he did major in biochemistry but also in philosophy, of all things. And I asked him why. And he said, because I, you know, I wanted to understand what had happened to me.

And of course, he didn't get the answers. He just got more questions. But I think to let his mind feel free to roam, to find, as he put it, his own peaceful corners around the campus and at Church of St. John the Divine, I think, you know, was a place where his mind could begin to heal.

RAZ: We should mention that for several years, Burundi was at or near the top of the World Bank's list of poorest countries in the world with almost no public health service.

Deo decides actually to begin to try and remedy this problem. And he founds an organization called Village Health Works. Can you tell us about that organization?

Mr. KIDDER: Well, Deo assembled a really large cadre of Americans. And they chose a rural village in Burundi and went to work there, building a - first of all, a clinic and cleaning up the water supplies, doing I think all the things that you're really supposed to do, both to promote public health and medicine.

In its first year and a half now, the last figure I heard was that they had seen 28,000 individual patients. People have been coming from all over Burundi to avail themselves with the services of this place. And they've been coming from places as far away as Tanzania and the Congo, as well. And the word has spread. All the care is free to those who can't afford to pay.

You know, I think, Deo, like almost every idealistic person I've ever known, what he really wanted to do was to build something larger than himself. And this clearly has become that.

RAZ: Tracy Kidder, this book is ostensibly the story of Deo's incredible journey from Burundi, but it's also about people like Deo, this - what you describe as the invisible people in places like New York.

Mr. KIDDER: It's always interesting. It was interesting walking along Fifth Avenue with Deo. You know, on one side you have some of the priciest real estate in the world, and on the other you have Central Park. And, you know, I remember going by people's cardboard houses on one side and with beautiful places…

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Hmm.

Mr. KIDDER: …you know, beautiful apartments on the other. But ever since I met Deo, you know, I've had to look at a lot of people differently. People with foreign accents, especially - especially in a place like New York. You know, janitors, hotel maids, taxi drivers, young men pushing grocery carts along Park Avenue. Who are they really? You know, what memories do they carry? What dreams? What sorts of abilities?

RAZ: Tracy Kidder. He is the author of the new book, "Strength in What Remains." He joined me from WMEA in Portland, Maine.

Mr. Kidder, thank you so much for being with us.

Mr. KIDDER: Thank you, Guy.

RAZ: And you can read an excerpt from the book at the new

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.