In 1993, at a time when the number of orphans was steadily increasing in Burundi due to the civil war, the then 24 year old Marguerite Barankitse started an NGO Maison Shalom, which means ‘house of peace’, and REMA Hospital that has been providing love and stability to children whose lives have been affected by Burundi’s pervasive conflict.
With over 20,000 beneficiaries whose lives had changed and brought hope to Burundian communities, Barankitse had begun to see her dream of a violent free Burundi, come to pass.
This was later disrupted when more conflict broke out in 2015. Nevertheless, she vowed never to leave her home country, but continue her work in saving several other young Burundians that needed refuge.
“When I was 16, I was filled with rage because many young people were being used to kill our parents. I lost over 60 relatives to the war in 1993 and made a vow that I would do my best to protect out people and spread love among the youth, even when another war broke out,” she says.
This was until she realised that her life was in danger and staying in her home country was untenable.
“When this happened, I wrote to my ‘children’ living in Canada and one of them wrote back and told me ‘Mummy you have to leave the country because when you arrive in exile, you will save many young people in your country. It is time for you to be our Joseph, so do not be afraid of fleeing,” she narrates.
Barankitse fled the country when there was a spree of killings in 2015, with just a bag of clothes and a photo album, which contains pictures of the children that she saved during the war since 1993.
Without money and a place to stay, she sought refuge at an old friend’s place, after she was told that it was unsafe for her to live in the refugee camp.
“Even though I was safe, my heart was not at peace knowing that I had several brothers and sisters living in misery. I pleaded with my host to give me the money that would be used to cover my expenses so I can share it with my people,” she says.
She was given 100,000 euros and that is when the idea of setting up a community center came up.
The birth of Oasis of Peace
After searching for a place she found Macadamia, which she chose because of its big compound, but was required to pay 5,000 dollars as rent which she couldn’t afford at the time.
I called my friends who paid six months’ rent. I turned it into Oasis of peace and I slowly started gathering refugees and young people. This is now a place where people can dream of love, peace and memory healing,” she says.
The community center, a sister organization to Maison Shalom Rwanda is currently home to hundreds of people that seek space for sociocultural, intellectual and peace building education for Burundian refugees as well as for the population host.
“The center is for everybody, although people may think it’s a community center for Burundian refugees, it is for everybody. I dream to organize activities between different nationalities across the region and encourage them to stand up against manipulation, for the sake of humanity in the great lakes region,” Barakintse reveals as she gives me a quick tour around the center.
Derived from the Bible, Oasis of Peace, the 61 year old says, is meant to give the young people a sense of peace and blessings with values of compassion, solidarity, dignity, tolerance and humility.
At the center, several workers and employees interact in mainly Kinyarwanda, Kirundi and French.
Several young people can be seen in groups having practical lessons in tailoring, hand crafts, and others in the cyber cafe. Another group is seated at the stall with products ready for sale.
In the compound, another group is drawing and painting while the other batch is in the kitchen having catering classes and preparing lunch for the over 200 people that come to the center for a free meal.
All of them are referring to her as ‘mummy.’
“We also prepare secondary school and university and my dream is to buy this place and also build a university of peace,” she says drifting my attention away from the artwork.
Another group of smartly dressed people in the compound is conducting a meeting. Barankitse reveals to me, that they are children she used to help, who now run the daily operations of the center.
“Many of them on hearing that I had opened up a center left their respective countries of residence to join in on this cause.”
As we continue, I’m led to another separate wing which I’m told is a small clinic, where the wounded, and victims of rape find treatment from medics. There, I meet one of the patients, Tresor Manirakiza, a Burundian who became paralyzed after he was shot in the back during the 2015 protests in Burundi.
“The hospitals gave up on him because there was no hope for recovery but I took him up because his pain was as a result of a just cause for his people. My plan is to get him a wheelchair from Switzerland for his condition to aid his movement so he can breathe fresh air outside his room,” she says.
Ushering me to her office, I notice several pictures of the activist in big frames hanged all over the wall. They are pictures of her with several world leaders and icons including the pope, the queen of England and John Croony, all of whom she met since the set-up of Maison Shalom.
On April 24, 2016, she was named the inaugural Laureate of the $1million Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. At the ceremony held in Yerevan, Armenia, Barankitse was recognized for her extraordinary hand in saving thousands of lives and caring for orphans and refugees during years of civil unrest in Burundi. This is just one of the six awards and an honorary degree in Seattle University, which she received after she fled a country.
“In 2015, I watched how politicians fighting for power use young people and how the militia was created. Young people are used in these wars and some killed in our countries. I will not die without realizing my dreams of creating a new generation in this great lakes region,” she says.
I ask her what her greatest joy has been through her achievements and pain. She pulls out her big sized photo album and showing me several pictures with teary eyes she responds:
“When I began Maison Shalom in 1993, I gathered these children from Rwanda, Burundi and Congo and they grew up and became adults. When I wake up in the morning I can’t believe that when I was just 24 and adopted my first seven children four of who were Hutu and three Tutsi and raised them together as one and as children of God.”
“I did not get any biological children because of them, believing that we had many orphans in this great lakes region, but I am the happiest mother in the world, seeing these children grow and some of them are married. They are the reason why I am never afraid of what I do because there are times we were more than 10,000 in centers but we still carried on.”
“I could have chosen to flee to Europe because I have a Luxemburg document to protect me and a Luxemburg passport, but I do not want to be far away from my country and my people,” she says.
I then proceed to ask her what her goals in life are.
We need to save humanity. I want to stop the cycle of wars and killings rotating in some countries in our region, she says.