SHEFFIELD -- Deogratias "Deo" Niyizonkiza escaped death multiple times in his native country, the war-torn African nation of Burundi.
Every student at the Berkshire School knows this. Over the summer, they were required to read "Strength in What Remains" by Tracy Kidder, who won a Pulitzer in 1982 for another book, "The Soul of a New Machine." "Strength in What Remains" chronicles Niyizonkiza's escape from Burundi to the United States, where he has established a nonprofit to help those in his homeland.
On Thursday, the students had an opportunity to ask Niyizonkiza about his experiences in person.
As the culmination of Berkshire's "All-School Read" program, Niyizonkiza traveled to Sheffield, where he had lunch with a handful of students and spoke about the bloody rivalry between Burundi's two tribes, the Hutu and the Tutsi. He also participated in a lecture and panel discussion at Berkshire on Thursday night.
Niyizonkiza, a Tutsi, said that he saw his own people savagely killed. But he also said he might not be alive today if not for the kindness of some Hutus.
He talked about coming to New York City from Burundi with no contacts and no money and marveling at seeing snow for the first time. He talked about hating God when watching brutal violence inflicted on women, and then about thanking God when strangers paid his way through college.
"When you really have a dream and you do believe in something and you are hitting bumps, those bumps will make you stronger," Niyizonkiza told students while lunching over chicken breast and vegetables.
"When you fall down, the most important thing is rise up and continue," he said. "Don't let anyone belittle your ambitions. You will accomplish whatever you want in life."
Nearly a dozen students had lunch with Niyizonkiza. Although the entire student body had read the book, the students who attended the luncheon had created work that exemplified the book's theme.
Berkshire School alumnus Stuart Miller, a member of the committee that brought Niyizonkiza to Sheffield, said the book had been assigned for students to read this summer to inspire a sense of community.
"It's this beautiful picture of people helping each other without a cost," said Miller, who recalled a scene where a baggage handler helped Niyizonkiza navigate the airport.
Niyizonkiza has been overcoming challenges since he fled Burundi as a third-year medical student in 1994.
When he came to the United States, he earned $15 a day delivering groceries in New York City (he was expected to earn tips to support his income). He slept in Central Park underneath the stars because he couldn't afford to sleep anywhere else.
He encountered multiple fortunate breaks, including moving in with a family who paid his tuition to attend Columbia University's School of General Studies. He earned a perfect score in calculus to attend the prestigious university.
Now 41, Niyizonkiza started a nonprofit known as Village Health Works aimed at improving the lives of those in Burundi. The nonprofit has 265 employees.
Niyizonkiza described how one of the employees, who had killed Tutsi like himself in the past, told him that his experience working for the nonprofit has raised guilt about how he had killed. He didn't know any better, he told Niyizonkiza.
"We are all victims," Niyizonkiza said. "We need to learn from the past, move forward to make sure no one else suffers like you suffered, I suffered, we all suffered."
Niyizonkiza rarely dwelled on his past in his troubled and impoverished homeland, and spoke positively about his experiences. The animosity between the Hutus and Tutsis in Burundi has resulted in two genocides. He said the battle has been over basic needs such as access to food and water.
"He completely changed his own future and he's helping others," said Berkshire student Greta Dorsey, 18. "He completely changed his own future and he's helping others. And he's working on saving the world. And that's what I want to do. He's very inspiring because he made it all happen himself."
In the years to come, Niyizonkiza says he hopes to expand a hospital that his nonprofit has built by adding a pavilion to provide medical services to women.
"The children are the future of the world," he said. "It's important right now that they are exploring and discovering what life has to offer."