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

Deogratias "Deo" Niyizonkiza, a refugee from the war-torn African country of Burundi, left his homeland in 1993 with little beyond the clothes on his back. When he arrived in New York City, he didn't know a soul there, nor did he speak English. But a series of charitable deeds by complete strangers helped Niyizonkiza transform himself from a homeless immigrant to an Ivy League student — and eventually set up a health clinic back home to help those he left behind.

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tracy Kidder recounts Niyizonkiza's story in his new book, Strength in What Remains. As Kidder tells host Guy Raz, Niyizonkiza barely escaped the ethnic warfare back home in Burundi.

"The hospital he was working in was attacked by rebels," Kidder says. "They came in and were killing people. And [Niyizonkiza] ran into his room and hid under his bed but forgot to close his door. They came to his doorway and he heard them say, 'The cockroach is gone. He ran away.' And [Niyizonkiza] lay there listening to them and smelling the massacre."

Niyizonkiza's escape began with a six-month trek by foot to Rwanda — a country struggling with its own ethnic war. Eventually he had to return to Burundi's airport in order to make it to America. Kidder says that when Niyizonkiza finally arrived in New York, his fortune turned around almost immediately.

"When he got to JFK, he was being questioned at immigration," Kidder says. "He didn't speak any English, and the agents didn't speak any French, [so] 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."

The home stay wasn't permanent, though, and Niyizonkiza wound up homeless in Central Park, where he picked up odd jobs. One day, a chance meeting with a former contemplative nun led him to Charlie and Nancy Wolf, a retired couple who agreed to take him into their home free of charge.

Kidder says the Wolfs had become familiar with the atrocities in Rwanda during their travels to Africa, and they wanted to give Niyizonkiza any advantage they could.

"It's really quite an extraordinary act," Kidder says. "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."

The Wolfs' charity didn't stop there; with their help, Niyizonkiza was able to enroll at Columbia University and audit courses at Harvard. From there, he went on to open a public health clinic in his home country that served around 30,000 people in its first year-and-a-half.

Kidder says writing Niyizonkiza's story has opened his eyes to the different experiences that strangers carry with them: "Ever since I met Deo, I've had to look at a lot of people differently — people with foreign accents especially. ... You know, janitors, hotel maids, taxi drivers, young men pushing grocery carts along Park Avenue — who are they really? What memories do they carry? What dreams? What sorts of abilities?"

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