Deogratias "Deo" Niyizonkiza, VHW's visionary founder and CEO, is a leading advocate for the most impoverished people in the world. His compassion, expertise, and life experience have made him a key voice in global health and international development.
An American citizen, Deo was born in rural Burundi, where he attended grade school and part of medical school. He left the country during the catastrophic war that lasted more than a decade and took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Deo survived not only this man-made tragedy and poverty, but also homelessness in New York City.
Deo’s life journey is told in Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Kidder’s book, Strength in What Remains, a New York Times best seller named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune.
Despite the hurdles he faced in the U.S.—homelessness, illness, and low-paying work delivering groceries— he eventually enrolled at Columbia University, where he received his bachelor’s degree. After graduating from Columbia, he attended the Harvard School of Public Health, where he met Dr. Paul Farmer and began working at the medical nonprofit organization Partners In Health and Harvard Medical School. He left Partners In Health to continue his medical education at Dartmouth Medical School.
In 2005, guided by his unwavering conviction that humanity’s progress should be measured by how we honor the dignity of others, including those a world away, Deo traveled back to Burundi. There, in the remote village of Kigutu, he established Village Health Works, with the goal of removing barriers to human dignity and progress by creating a model health care system and education based on critical thinking. Deo's passion rallied the community of Kigutu into action. Thanks to community-donated land, a small amount of seed money from American fellow medical students and supporters, a community of compassionate volunteers, and Deo's leadership, the health center opened in December 2007. Deo's success in mobilizing local communities including former enemies to work together and building an entirely community-driven health care and development organization is unprecedented, and makes Village Health Works unique among NGOs.
A frequent lecturer on global health, Deo is the recipient of multiple prestigious honors and awards, including The Carnegie Foundation of New York as the 2016 Great Immigrant: The Pride of America, the 2016 Presidential Medal: Amitiés des Peuples, 2014 Dalai Lama Unsung Hero of Compassion Award, the 2013 People to People International's Eisenhower Medallion Award, a 2015 honorary degree from Arcadia University, 2013 Honorary degree from Williams College, the 2011 International Medal Award of St. John’s University, the 2010 Women's Refugee Commission’s Voices of Courage Award, and the Otis Social Justice Award presented by Wheaton College in 2014. It was in 2014 that Deo was invited by Dennis M. Hanno to give a keynote address at Hanno’s inauguration as Wheaton’s eighth president. Deo received an honorary Doctor in Laws degree from Wheaton in May 2022 where he also delivered the Commencement Address. Deo was the 2022 Class Day keynote speaker at Columbia University.
Deo’s work has been profiled in numerous major US newspapers and academic magazines including The New York Times, The Seattle Times, The Nation and Columbia University Magazine. He also has authored and co-authored a number of articles in journals such as the British Medical Journal, The Guardian, Huffington Post, and Social Research, An International Quarterly.