Biography of Marguerite Barankitse, humanitarian activist from the Republic of Burundi. Holder of an honorary doctorate from the University of Leuven, she works with ardor and courage for peace and reconciliation in her country.
She dedicates her life to improving the well-being of children and fighting ethnic discrimination.
Childhood and education of Marguerite Barankitse
Marguerite Barankitse was born in 1956 in Ruyigi, one of the poorest regions in the east of the country.
Marguerite was orphaned from her earliest childhood, and was an intern in a school in Bujumbura, run by nuns who gave her a good education.
Marguerite Barankitze devoted herself to teaching
When she finished basic studies, she wanted to dedicate herself to teaching.
To achieve this goal, every day she traveled the 12 kilometers from Ruyigi to the Bujumbura Normal School on foot.
In 1979 she obtained the title of teacher. She devoted three years to teaching in Ruyigi.
From 1981 to 1983, she followed in Lourdes (France) a specialized training course for lay women, given by the “Auxillium Association”.
In 1983, Marguerite returned to Burundi and worked as a teacher in a public secondary school in Ruyigi.
She was fired from her job for refusing to apply the policy of ethnic segregation and for having protested against discrimination in the field of education between the two main ethnic groups: Hutus (85% of the population) and Tutsis (14 % of the population).
Marguerite is of Tutsi ethnicity.
Marguerite Barankitze goes to study in Switzerland
She took advantage of this dismissal from the civil service to accept the offer of a scholarship in Switzerland.
Upon her return, she got a job as secretary to the Catholic Bishop of Ruyigi.
Despite mounting tensions in Burundi, she put her dream of ethnic harmony into practice by adopting seven children: four Hutus and three Tutsis.
Marguerite Barankitse from 1993 to 2005
By October 1993, the political climate had dangerously degraded. The violence between the Hutus and the Tutsis intensified considerably after the assassination of the Burundi president.
In anticipation of violent attacks, Marguerite hid several dozen Hutus, both adults and children, in the Ruyigi bishopric’s mansion.
On October 23, 1993, a group of armed Tutsis went to the city of Ruyigi, with the purpose of assassinating the Hutu families that were hiding in the bishop’s house.
On Sunday morning, October 24, 1993, Tutsi assailants armed with truncheons, machetes and stones stormed the city and attacked the bishopric’s mansion.
Marguerite managed to hide many of the children and then tried to get in the way of the assailants.
They did not kill her because she was a Tutsi; but since she refused to tell them where the children were hiding, they beat her, tied her to a chair and forced her to witness the murder of 72 Hutus in the courtyard of the mansion.
After which, they set fire to the house.
When the assailants were already retiring, she managed to pay one of them to help her escape with 25 of the Hutu children she had hidden.
She took them all out of the burning building and hid them in the cemetery.
At night, a German aid worker, Martin Novak, granted them provisional asylum.
One hundred years earlier, and on another continent, Harriet Tubman, an African-American slave, had carried out something similar in favor of black slaves in the USA.
Marguerite reunited her seven adopted children and the surviving orphans; and she hid them in a nearby school lent her by the Bishop of Ruyigi.
The crisis situation persisted throughout Burundi and dozens of children ran to take refuge in Marguerite’s house.
Marguerite Barankitze organizes aid
Drawing unsuspected strength from her anger, but above all from her unshakable faith in divine Providence and in her love for life, she managed little by little, to give refuge to the children who continued to come to her in search of food and protection.
To feed all those people, they all began to collect food by going to known families.
In addition, she decided to cultivate the land with the children.
She organized a system of mutual aid without distinction of ethnicity, religion and social origin; the older children had to take care of the little ones.
The Catholic bishop encouraged her to create Maison Shalom
In May 1994, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Ruyigi, Joseph Nduhirubusa, offered Marguerite to transform an old school into a children’s shelter.
The children wanted the shelter to have the name “Maison Shalom”, “House of Peace”, after a song that was heard on the radio in those days.
Maison Shalom was predominantly for children, child soldiers, orphaned children, and mutilated children. Of any sex or ethnicity.
Initially, this work was funded by German grants.
Shortly thereafter, thanks to some friends that Marguerite had met during her stay in Lourdes and Switzerland, international help came to carry out other similar projects.
She decided that the bottom line at this Maison Shalom should be that it be open to children of all ethnic backgrounds – Tutsi, Hutu and Twa. She calls them “my Hutsitwa children.”
As the days went by, Maison Shalom’s services were available to the entire community.
In the following years, Maison Shalom in Ruyigi was one of the few places in Burundi where Hutus and Tutsis coexisted in harmony.
Over the years, this refuge that sought to protect all the orphans of Burundi after the civil war, became a true village.
In order to guarantee the future of these children who were growing up, the Maison Shalom was transformed into a network of “villages”, so that the children could be raised in the bosom of families.
The House of Peace was organized as an NGO
The Maison Shalom under the structure of an NGO, managed the installation of a bank, a nursery, a hotel, shops, centers for learning sewing and computers, a mechanics training school, a swimming pool, a cinema, and the Hospital REMA.
Many of these activities, led by the youth themselves, were income-generating. For example: the guest house, the cinema and the car shop.
It even came to the possibility that when a young man decided to become independent, the Maison Shalom provided him with a small house and land.
Until 2015, more than 300 houses had been built for children and young people between 4 and 20 years old.
In July 2007, the “Mother and Son” Center, built by the Belgian and Burundian armies, was inaugurated. They bequeathed it to the NGO Maison Shalom.
Also in 2007, the REMA hospital was inaugurated, with 120 beds; as part of the “Mother of Son” project.
The organization came to employ more than 270 people; among them nurses, psychologists and educators who implemented special projects for children.
Maison Shalom also assisted the internally displaced and returning Burundian refugees, to facilitate their reintegration in Ruyigi and to help them track down their missing relatives.
Other activities of Marguerite and Maison Shalom
Marguerite Barankitse was on the front lines of the battle against HIV / AIDS, establishing counseling projects to promote the prevention of this disease.
She and her staff at Maison Shalom cared for more than 100 orphaned or abandoned children infected with HIV.
Marguerite also started an initiative to help young people who were in prison.
Some children were born in prison and it was necessary to prepare them for a better life, through education.
In addition, the Maison Shalom worked for them to have a home when they were released from prison.
In 2014, Maison Shalom was operating with excellent results.
Marguerite’s unwavering faith in God, and her intelligence, will and managerial capacity, had been joined by the generous support of the Bishop of Ruyigi, the religious of Rwanda and the Catholics of France, Switzerland, Germany and other countries.
Marguerite and her team started promoting agriculture and established a microcredit project to enable mothers and fathers to develop small businesses.
Something very similar to what Anna and Vicente Ferrer were doing in India.
Marguerite and the Maison Shalom in 2015
But in 2015, everything fell apart. The Burundi government began to violently suppress popular protests, against President Nkurunziza’s intentions to start a third term.
Thousands of Burundians began to flee to Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and the Congo.
In April 2015, Marguerite spoke out against Pierre Nkurunziza running for a third presidential term.
In addition, she joined the youth demonstrations denouncing the repressions.
Marguerite Barankitse’s name appeared on a list of people to be removed.
Marguerite had to hide for a month in an embassy.
Marguerite Barankitze took refuge in Rwanda
She refused to comfortably spend her days in Europe.
As soon as she could, she fled the country and sought refuge in neighboring Rwanda. There she devoted all her energy to helping refugee children.
There were more than 90,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda. Of these, some 58,000 were in the Mahama refugee camps, along with Marguerite.
Her acquaintances encouraged her to open something similar to Maison Shalom in Rwanda.
Marguerite began this new experience by concentrating efforts on education.
She fought to get an education for the children and college students who were in the refugee camps.
She managed to sponsor 126 children in preschool, 160 in high school.
She helped 353 refugee university students obtain scholarships to enter Rwandan universities.
She got 10 scholarships for the best students, so that they could go to universities abroad.
The NGO Maison Shalom and Marguerite Barankitse
In May 2017, Marguerite opened the “Oasis of Peace Community Center” for school-age children in the city of Kigali, Rwanda.
This Oasis managed by the NGO Maison Shalom, offers:
- psychosocial support for victims of torture and rape.
- sustainable development activities in areas such as health, education, professional training, culture and income.
- a variety of courses including English, culinary arts, sewing, embroidery, and painting.
- a restaurant
- a Cybercenter equipped with computers with internet connection for research and basic computer training.
Approximately 200 people come every day to the Oasis of Peace and benefit from the various services it offers.
Maison Shalom seeks to help refugees, and especially young people in exile, to live with dignity.
Marguerite’s vision is to instill dignity in refugees and enable them to keep their dreams alive.
Often she says: “Evil never has the last word: love always wins.“
On June 22, 2018, Maison Shalom opened the “Mahama Elite Center“, in Rwanda.
Purpose: to support refugees living in the camp in the Mahama region.
This training center will offer vocational training and employment to Burundian refugees.
The project will allow young people not only to improve their living conditions, but also to strengthen their entrepreneurial skills.
For Marguerite, what matters above all is the education of these children and young people for peace and forgiveness.
Today, more than 50,000 children and adults have received help from Maison Shalom.
Awards and honors given to Marguerite Barankitze
Marguerite’s humanitarian and peaceful action has been honored with numerous international awards.
- 1998: Juan María Bandrés Award, for Asylum Rights.
- 1998: Prize of the rights of man, of the French Republic.
- 2000: North-South Award, from the Council of Europe.
- 2003: Prize of the Children of the World, for the Rights of the Child.
- 2004: Voices of Courage Award, from the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children.
- In 2004: Four Awards for Freedoms, from the Franklin Institute and Eleanor Roosevelt.
- 2004: Nansen Refugee Award.
- 2008: Opus Award.
- 2008: UNESCO Prize.
- 2009: Grand Duchess Maria Teresa of Luxembourg, UNICEF Eminent Advocate for Children, visited Maison Shalom during a tour of Burundi.
- 2011: The Grand Duchess welcomed Marguerite Barankitse to Luxembourg to open a photographic exhibition in support of Maison Shalom.
- 2011: UN Award for Conflict Prevention.
- 2016: Aurora Prize of $ 1.1 million, for Awakening Humanity.
2017: Doctor of Laws (honoris causa) from the University of Rhodes
2013: Honorary Doctor, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
2013: Honorary Doctor, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, USA.
2012: Honorary Doctor of the University of Lille, France,
2011: Doctor Honoris Causa, Université Catholique de Lille, France
2004: Doctor Honoris Causa of the University of Leuven, Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium.
Marguerite Barankitse repeats incessantly, in her travels around the world, her message: “There is nothing that resists love”, “Evil will never have the last word. Faith and love displace the mountains of hate. “
She proudly proclaims her faith: “Prayer keeps me on my feet. The true value, I get it from the Eucharist ”.