What does any mom want for her children?
This question takes on added significance in one of Global Daily’s most intimate conversations to date as part of the annual Social Good Summit, between Marguerite Barankitse, a refuge from Burundi who in April was awarded the first-ever Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, and Molly Elgin-Cossart, a former senior UN official with the Secretariat who now serves as a principal for Omidyar Group.
Barankitse, affectionately known as Maggy, has helped to nurture more than 30,000 children that passed through the doors of her orphanage between 1990 and 1994 during Burundi’s bloody civil war between Hutu and Tutsi tribesmen. In October 1993, a group of Hutus killed Barankitse’s family; two days later, she stood face-to-face with a group of fellow Tutsis in an attempt to stop a retaliation attack on more than 70 Hutus hiding within her community.
“Before I am a Tutsi,” Barankitse recalls telling the mob, “I am a Christian. I will not allow you to kill those people.”
The mob didn’t listen. As punishment, Barankitse was stripped naked, tied to a tree and forced to watch Tutsis burn down the house sheltering the Hutu tribesmen. Barankitse was able to save 25 children, hiding them in a nearby German aid worker’s house.
Barankitse set up a school for orphaned children that has since cared for 30,000 orphans, street children and castaways in the school, now known as Maison Shalom.
Now, two decades later, conflict has returned to Burundi and Barankitse lives as a refugee in neighboring Rwanda. She hopes to return home to meet the children who she sees as Burundi’s “light among the dark.”
Her cause has been illuminated on the world stage as the first awardee of the Aurora Prize and then this week at the Social Good Summit in New York City during UN General Assembly week. Yet, the conflict in Burundi and the more than 500,000 refugees continue to be the least mentioned group among the better-known crisis in Syria and other parts of the world.
The interview that follows has been lightly edited for clarity. The Aurora Prize one million dollar prize is awarded on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and supported by humanitarians including actor George Clooney and the late Elie Wiesel.
Molly: You say you took these children with love with empathy. How did you approach uniting these two ethnicities as one family?
Marguerite: People always ask about ethnic conflict. But conflict is also very much political, often a result of bad governance.
Hutu or Tutsi, we live in the same villages, we speak the same language, we have the same culture, we go to the same schools, and we have the same religions. It is very easy for me to explain to young children that it is possible to come together with children from another ethnicity, even those who had parents caught up in the conflict.
My wish was that we must create a new era where Hutu and Tutsi are able to break this chapter of violence. The children – whether they are Hutu or Tutsi – they do not know. The children are the ones who say to us, “You can forgive.”
I want to leave the Burundian people with forgiveness, in reconciliation.
Molly: Is there a time in your life where you witnessed forgiveness that is especially memorable for you?
Marguerite: I remember, Gloriose. Her parents were killed in the conflict and she was raped and became pregnant at the age of 14. When the doctor said to me, “She will not be able to give birth, she is too young and she will die,” the little girl looked up to the doctor and said, “But I will be able. I want to keep this baby.” When Gloriose give birth, she gave the family name of Monique Inamahoro to the child. And the meaning this name is the “child of peace.” Gloriose said, “Yes, I want this child, I want this name to be an example for all Burundians.” And when you saw her face, it was bright of hope and she was so able to forgive. We later traveled back to her village where she presented her child and spoke openly about hope and the adults in her community asked for Gloriose forgiveness with tears in their eyes. Now, she is the mom of four wonderful children.
Forgiveness is really important in your whole life, when you give that, then you give it back to yourself. It is good for us to continue to give forgiveness, and I will continue to tell that story about Gloriose because she is a hope for this world.
Molly: Unfortunately, Burundi is subsumed once again by violence, and you yourself have been forced to flee and become a refugee. What has been your experience with that?
Of course, my conviction is that I am a Christian, and I know that I am a citizen of the world. What hurts me in my heart is to see young people who are tortured, who are assassinated, who are obliged to flee their countries. They can’t go to school; they can’t survive in refugee camps in bad conditions. This is what hurts me. This is my experience to be a refugee, to have no where to go, to have not enough to feed my children,
I’ve had a role in creating peace. Now, all of these things are destroyed. But, I am sure that love wins. I know that we will return to Burundi and that we will be part of a new Burundi who will repaint the country with new values, with new human values, with compassion, with forgiveness. Now, I am one of more than 300,000 Burundian refugees.
Molly: Hundreds of thousands of Burundian’s have been forced to flee rapes, human trafficking, and the horrific things of this crisis, and yet the global response has been rather weak. We hear that the global humanitarian system is broken – what message would you like to tell policy makers around the world?
Marguerite: To the policymakers: You can’t forget Burundi because we are all brothers and sisters. We are one human family and you must stop those crimes because if you wait and it will be like the Rwandan genocide. This is the cry of a man who sees all of his children tortured, killed.
To the United Nations: Send peacekeepers to protect people, this is an urgent emergency.
Molly: What can policymakers do to empower people like you to be able to do your work better?
Marguerite: Too many young people stop their studies. I need policymakers to help us send these young people to school, who are the hope for the young world. Send them to universities. To all those mothers who have nothing to eat in the refugee camps, they must have enough good nutrition. And policymakers must stop these rapes, they have the right to protect people and to give us some tools to help all of these people.
For example, we have 180,000 people in Rwanda where I work, but we don’t have support to help them. And then there are those, like the Aurora Prize who give money to help these young people, their nutrition, and also to help mothers, but we need money, that’s it.
Molly: How are the health conditions in the refugee camps?
Marguerite: There are so many Burundian refugees in Rwanda, Tanzania, in Uganda, in the Congo. The refugee situation is a catastrophe. They die everyday because of diseases like Malaria. Every refugee family is supposed to have a bed net but there are still not enough. Refugees in urban areas are not supported at all and are suffering due to this disease and others.
Molly: What is your greatest hope for these more than 30,000 children that you have helped? What do you want for them?
Marguerite: What does any mom want for her children? What do you want for your children? You said you are a mom. For me it is a special message. I would like that these young people can be a light among the dark in our country. They are little candles, and I hope that they will stand up and fight in the community because of love. With love, kindness, we can start to see, it’s what I dream for my children, for all Burundi. I am just a mom, now in the refugee camp, I think about all of those children who pass through here, and hope that every Burundian can return to our country, and to repent with the compassion, forgiveness, and dignity.
Molly: Thank you so much for sharing your extraordinary spirit and gift that you bring to your work. I find you such an inspiration as a humanitarian and as a mother. Thank you so much for sharing your answers with me this morning, it was a great pleasure to speak with you.
Molly Elgin-Cossart’s takeaway on how to do better in humanitarian aid.
Marguerite’s call to be more active in Burundi struck me. Policy too often responds to headlines or political cycles, rather than proactively trying to prevent or mitigate atrocities. Burundi is a case in point. Burundi has survived multiple episodes of genocide, so we should not underestimate the danger of the current situation. Yet there is almost no attention on the crisis among policymakers, who are distracted by crises elsewhere. The Great Lakes region is often at the bottom of the list of concerns. We’ve seen this cycle of oppression and violence before – more action is needed, and urgently.
Marguerite’s emphasis on education and nutrition also struck me. Too often policy focuses on short-term fixes, but the reality is that escaping from cycles of violence is generational work. Partially that means investments in institution-building, but we can’t forget that it also involves making investments in individual opportunity. World leaders made a commitment last year as part of the SDGs to “leave no one behind”, and hearing from Marguerite reminded me how critical that commitment is, and just how much work we have to do to achieve it.