Grocott's Mail

Dr Marguerite Barankitse: a career in people


LL.D, Friday, 21 April 2017

Born in Burundi, Dr Marguerite Barankitse’s story is the horrific one of the Burundian Civil War that she not only survived, but made sure more than 25 000 children survived it too.

Marguerite Barankitse’s mother adopted eight children when she and her brother were still very young. As a young girl being raised by a single mother in Burundi, Maggy dreamed of building villages for children left to fend for themselves. After qualifying as teacher, at 23, she adopted one of her students and took four more children into her home.

In 1993 in Ruyigi, the Tutsi tribe sought vengeance for the killing of members of their ethnic group by the Hutus. Maggy, a Tutsi woman tried to reason with the group of Tutsi, but in vain. To punish her for the betrayal of adopting children of a different ethnicity, the group, led by men, stripped her naked

and tied her to a chair. They forced her to watch as they set fire to the diocese building where hundreds of families were hiding. They mercilessl­y hacked her friends to death with machetes while they gave her a front row seat. The violence was absolute. A massacre. She survived.

Maggy found refuge in the home of a German humanitari­an worker and spent the next seven months pondering the next step for the children who were orphaned. She became known as the “crazy woman of Ruyigi” who dared to take in all the orphans who came to her.

Internatio­nal NGOs present in Burundi and a growing number of friends from around the world helped make the miracle happen. The number of orphans was growing and Maggy expanded her activities and infrastruc­ture. She gave her organisati­on a name: Maison Shalom - the House of Peace. The diocese of Ruyigi allowed her to use some of its buildings, a partnershi­p that lasted until 2001. As needs grew, Maggy opened other centres for orphans; he Oasis de la Paix, in Gisuru, and Casa della Pace, in Butezi.

Children orphaned by war, Aids or poverty have been her main targets. Since first taking responsibi­lity for 25 war orphans in 1993, Maison Shalom has assisted more than 25 000 orphans or poverty stricken children until now.

She knew that nothing could ever replace the warmth and stability of a family in a child’s developmen­t. Although the war continued unabated, Maison Shalom maintained its efforts to trace the origins of the children it had taken in.

The aim was to find their families. Those initial efforts paid off some time later, in the late 1990s, when Maison Shalom launched its first efforts at reintegrat­ion. Maison Shalom has developed into a larger enterprise reaching tens of thousands in Burundi, DRC Congo and Rwanda. In 2008, they opened Burundi’s most modern hospital, promoted a microfinan­ce scheme for the Eastern parts of Burundi, organised a Cooperativ­e for farmers, and created work places for former child soldiers. They also run schools at primary and high school levels in Ruyigi, Burundi.

Maison Shalom has through a scholarshi­p programme, helped 400 young, gifted students in exile so they can continue their studies at Universiti­es in France and Belgium.

In 2015, she was forced to leave Burundi due to the political turmoil. The rest of her staff also fled the country. The regime froze their bank accounts and closed down all Shalom activities. They lost everything they had built for more than 20 years.

However, Maggy returned and Maison Shalom is now active as ever before. It is establishe­d in Rwanda thanks to Rwandan authoritie­s.

“We are convinced that our dream to see Burundians live a decent life can come true. More than 20 years of experience in the Great Lakes Region with vulnerable children has taught us that the best way to help efficientl­y and sustainabl­y is to develop the community in which they live,” she says.

A great number of Burundian refugees are well-educated people, such as teachers, university professors, scientists, business people, engineers, musicians, journalist­s, doctors and psychologi­sts who have no opportunit­y to practice their profession.

Maggie is establishi­ng a Community Centre that wil function as a meeting place for all these different profes sions. Here people can teach other refugees whatever they have of profession­al skills, and House of Peace will offer space on their premises to start class es and training.

“The last year has been a time of loss and remembranc­e Many have lost their lives in the struggle for a free and just Burundi. More than 300 000 Burundians forced into exile are now living a life on the brink of what is possible,” she says.

The Aurora Prize for Awak ening Humanity was awarded for the first time in 2016 and Marguerite Barankitse became the first laureate of the prize A one million dollar award fol lows the prize.

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