D.G. MARTIN: New Best-Seller About an African Has a Tar Heel as a Hero
How did a North Carolinian come to be a hero in a new best-selling book about a Tutsi refugee from the ethnic civil wars in Burundi and Rwanda?
The new book is "Strength in What Remains: A Journey of Remembrance and Forgiveness," by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Tracy Kidder. Kidder's earlier book, "Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World," is already a modern classic.
The new book tells the story of Deogratias Niyizonkiza ("Deo"), who barely escaped the ethnic massacres that erupted around the hospital in Burundi where he worked as part of his medical training. In 1994, after months of fleeing and hiding, he made his way to New York City.
Deo spoke no English and had no background to prepare him for the city. He slept in abandoned tenements or in Central Park. He got a grocery delivery job that paid a few dollars a day. Malnourishment, illness and the mental anguish from the horrors of his country's ethnic civil war almost brought Deo down.
But miraculously, within a few years he had graduated from Columbia University, enrolled in medical school and earned U.S. citizenship. Then, he returned to Burundi, where he led the construction and opening of a new medical clinic to treat illness and to help heal the lingering spiritual wounds of the ethnic turmoil.
Although author Tracy Kidder writes with restraint and dignity, he tells Deo's poignant story so compellingly that most readers, once they get started, will want to finish the book without any interruption.
What, then, is the North Carolina connection, and why is a North Carolinian such a hero? That connection helps explain the miracle of Deo's transformation from "street person" to university graduate. It happened like this:
One day Deo delivered groceries to a former Catholic nun. She spoke some French with him and gave him a generous tip. Deo followed up by requesting her help.
She responded with a saintly commitment to his cause. She persuaded Charlie and Nancy Wolf to give Deo a room in their apartment in the SoHo section of Manhattan.
Nancy is a prominent artist, and Charlie is a former university sociology professor with an international reputation as an expert on the impact of changing technology on the lives of individuals.
Charlie grew up in Chapel Hill, where his father was a prominent economics professor and labor arbitrator. Charlie graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and taught there before moving North to teach at Ivy League schools.
Charlie and Nancy not only gave Deo a safe, comfortable place to live but also arranged for an English-as-a-second-language course at Columbia University, which led to his enrollment as a regular student and finally his graduation. The Wolfs were always there to provide the connections and financial resources to make it all possible.
I talked to Charlie Wolf the other day and asked how in the world they could give a place in their house and do so much for a homeless refugee in so much trouble. Charlie said simply, "Nancy and I got from Deo so much more than we gave."
North Carolinians can be proud of their example of the rewards of service to others.
But there is a part of the story that should not make us so proud.
Before enrolling at Columbia, Deo came to Chapel Hill to seek entrance to the university. But there was no place for him at the university--only a low-level job at a local nursing home. He did not find the help he needed here.
He had to go back to New York and Charlie Wolf to get the kind of "North Carolina" help that turned his life around.
D.G. Martin is hosting his final season of UNC-TV's "North Carolina Bookwatch," which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. This Sunday's (Oct. 11) guest is Michael Malone, author of "The Four Corners of the Sky."
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