"I have also learned that the word impossible is a lie. Nothing is impossible if you are driven by love and invest yourself fully. Hate will never have the last word. Not as long as we practice love."
Marguerite "Maggy" Barankitse is an acclaimed activist from Burundi and founder of Maison Shalom, an organization devoted to disadvantaged children and challenging ethnic discrimination. Over the past 25 years, Maison Shalom (“Peace House”) has provided shelter, healthcare and education to over 20,000 children. In 2015, Maggy was forced to flee Burundi and became a refugee. Using her experience with Maison Shalom, she has since opened a new organization, Oasis of Peace, where she provides psychosocial support to victims of torture and rape, school programs for children, vocational training and income-generation programs for over 90,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda. Maggy is the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2016 Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity.
Could you tell us about the work you have been doing for the past decades? How did you begin?
I began with absolutely nothing. We were in the middle of a civil war and families were wiped out in my area, for ethnic reasons. I managed to rescue some of the children by hiding them in a school nearby. More children started coming and I realized I had a responsibility to care for them. They needed shelter, safety and most of all, love. I knocked on every door, including the big international organizations working with children, but no one knew me at the time, and I would be asked to make an appointment, write a proposal, and wait for feedback. All this while I had hungry children who needed food the same day. I had to find a way. I went to our bishop and said, “You must give me food and land.” I did not give him much of a choice. The Church gave us a piece of land and gradually we built little houses, began to farm, and built a small school. We took the name ‘Shalom’ because my children heard on the radio that shalom meant peace, and that is our dream.
How did you approach caring for these children?
People in the community became volunteers, and instead of creating an orphanage, I wanted to create family structure, and paired children with families or ‘volunteer moms’. We welcomed children of all ethnic backgrounds, and created an atmosphere where Hutus and Tutsis could cohabitate in harmony. Wherever possible we tried to reintegrate children with their original families and build a culture of peace and reconciliation. What is extraordinary is that some children were able to live with families that killed their parents, because they have been able to forgive them. Maison Shalom provides so much more than food and shelter. Our goal was always to feed the heart, and prove that one can create life from the ashes of war.
You are now a refugee yourself, can you tell us about the work you are doing with refugees in Rwanda?
In 2015, I initially I fled to Europe where I had friends and partners who had supported my work with Maison Shalom. But as I realized there were 90,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda in desperate need of help, I quickly moved to Rwanda. I was already used to this work, and I knew education was one of the best ways to lift children out of despair. This is what led me to open ‘Oasis of Peace’ a space where refugees can feel human again. We support children’s education, we find scholarships for young refugees to attend university, we counsel victims of torture and rape, we teach refugees English so they can adapt in Rwanda’s English-speaking society. We have a cooking school to help young people find jobs rather than staying idle and turning their frustration into violence. We also teach computer skills and a variety of income generating skills for women. I have just opened the Elite Centre in the Mahama refugee camp because we want refugees to believe that they can achieve anything. Living in a refugee camp can crush you, but we want them to live in dignity, to transform displacement into an empowering experience. We also want to focus on building a culture of peace and forgiveness. We are building a new generation of leaders.
How are the women you see in camps responding to the crisis?
Women are candles in the darkness. Despite the challenges they live with, they stay strong, they care for their families, regardless of the extraordinary effort it takes. We are naturally leaders and problem-solvers, and you see it so clearly in the camp. Women also don’t need to be taught much about peace, they instinctively understand the purpose of reconciliation, even after facing the worst atrocities. Some of the women we work with have survived the worst sexual assaults, but their resilience is beyond compare. Women understand what a community is and what it needs to survive and thrive; they will save us all. If you want to destroy the world, then you must destroy women. And nobody can do that. No matter how hard they try. We keep bouncing back and rising stronger than ever before.
What have you learned through your work?
I have learned that we cannot rely on the government to build our society. Women and civil society are the backbone of our communities. I have also learned that the word impossible is a lie. Nothing is impossible if you are driven by love and invest yourself fully. Hate will never have the last word. Not as long as we practice love.
Learn more about Maison Shalom on their website.
Watch Maggy discuss her work for the Aurora Prize in 2016.
Listen to the Global Dispatch podcast on detailing Maggy's life story and work.
Watch Maggy's TEDx talk about how she started Maison Shalom.