Young people beaten by police. A person’s head cut off. Murders. And not just any killings—brutal massacres. She’s seen it all. She has feared for her own life as she became the subject of government harassment and death threats, forcing her to flee her country with nothing but a pair of trousers.
But through it all, Marguerite Barankitse still believes love transcends all obstacles. And now she has expanded her “family” to include tens of thousands of children whose lives she’s saved against the most difficult odds, bringing hope to children orphaned by war, and more recently, those robbed of their parents by the deadly AIDS virus.
She has, as she puts it, a calling to love—to love people everywhere, of all ethnic backgrounds, in all corners of the world. “When you have these values of compassion,” she says, “nothing can stop you.”
It’s a surprising optimism for someone who grew up during the tumultuous history of the nation of Burundi in East Africa, a region divided by devastating ethnic conflict. A civil war pitted Marguerite’s people, the Tutsis, against the Hutu population. But Marguerite is blind to such artificial barriers; in fact, in 1993 at the height of the war, she sheltered a group of Hutus at the Catholic diocese where she worked. That was a tremendous risk, and ultimately a Tutsi mob ambushed the facility, forcing her to watch as they dismembered and burned two of Hutus she had risked so much to protect.
But Marguerite’s calling to “give happiness” prompted her to pay the Tutsi mob a ransom to save what she could—sparing the lives of the 25 Hutu children in her care, so she could see them grow up into a world that she hoped would be more welcoming. That experience gave her the resolve to do even more, not just for the children in her care, but for others orphaned during the Burundi civil war. So, she established an organization called Maison Shalom, which provided a safe haven for orphaned Burundi children of all ethnic backgrounds.
No task she faced amid this mission was too much for Marguerite; she walked directly into war zones to pick out children from amid piles of dead bodies—giving them a chance, believing that they, like anyone else, deserved the opportunity to live. In one haunting case, Marguerite recalls coming across a mother who had been killed in a grenade attack, with a four-month-old baby strapped to her back. At first she thought the baby was dead, but soon realized he was still alive but severely injured. He had hit his mouth when she fell and was badly disfigured. People told her to leave him to die, but Marguerite wouldn’t give up on him. Today that baby is 18 years old, and looks to a bright future.
His story, along with those of other children she once rescued who are now studying for college degrees, has fueled her optimism and driven her to continue her work long after the Burundi civil war ended. Today, her organization’s mission has expanded; Marguerite and her colleagues now care for children orphaned by AIDS rather than war, not just in Burundi but also in Rwanda where she now lives, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
It’s hard for her to believe that since she started on this mission, she has come to the aid of more than 20,000 orphans and children in need. She has reunited children who were separated from their families, whether by war or through incarceration, and created a new “home” for orphaned children, complete with a library, a swimming pool, a cinema (the only one in the country), and even a garage where former child soldiers can learn to repair vehicles.
Her work continues, as she is now working to free incarcerated children throughout Burundi and to help welcome Burundian refugees into Rwanda. But it’s not just about her corner of the world. “I am a citizen of the world,” Marguerite says. “I am but one member of such a big family, a family of the human race.”
And everyone, she believes, can prosper through kindness. “Love transcends all obstacles. Even if we have nothing we can give laughter and tenderness.” She has shown by example exactly how that works.
Marguerite Barankitse is the inaugural Laureate for the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. On behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors, the Aurora Prize aims to raise public consciousness about atrocities occurring around the world and reward those working to address these major issues in a real and substantial manner. The Prize is awarded annually on April 24 in Yerevan, Armenia.