Nansen Award winner opens new hospital in Burundi

2005 Nansen Award laureate Marguerite Barankitse opens a well-equipped 120-bed hospital that will provide health care and job openings in Burundi.

Nansen Refugee Award laureate Marguerite Barankitse outside her new 120-bed hospital in Burundi.   © UNHCR/B.Ntwari

NYAMUTOBO, Burundi, January 23 (UNHCR) - Nansen Refugee Award laureate Marguerite Barankitse has opened a well-equipped 120-bed hospital that will provide vital health care and job opportunities in a poverty-stricken area of Burundi.

The Burundian humanitarian, who won UNHCR's prestigious Nansen Award in 2005, used her US$100,000 cash prize as seed funding to build the private facility in the town of Nyamutobo, just two kilometres from the provincial capital Ruyigi.

"The award was an encouragement that I could do more for the Burundian returnees, especially women who are facing serious difficulties. Mothers were dying while delivering and children were left as orphans," Barankitse told dignitaries at Tuesday's well-attended opening ceremony.

"Today, my dreams have become true. I have called this hospital Rema, a word used in my language to comfort someone facing serious difficulties," added the "Angel of Burundi," who for more than a decade has helped thousands of separated children of all ethnic origins.

The Nansen Refugee Award is given annually to individuals or organizations that have distinguished themselves in work on behalf of refugees. Maltese lawyer Katrine Camilleri won the 2007 award, while other past recipients include Eleanor Roosevelt, Médecins Sans Frontières, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands and Graça Machel.

"Maggy" Barankitse, who heads the Maison Shalom non-governmental organization (NGO), originally planned to build a maternity clinic for refugee returnees with her Nansen cash prize.

But with extra financial help from NGOs and individuals in Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and Switzerland she was able to build a bigger facility. The hospital also provides paediatrics care and features a laboratory.

It is also providing job opportunities for skilled returnees. Three of the 12 nurses are returnees as well as many of the maintenance and support staff. Barankitse plans to add a medical school, which will admit returnee students.

Bo Schack, the UNHCR representative in Burundi, said at Tuesday's opening that Barankitse was exactly the kind of person that deserved the refugee agency's help. "We really appreciate that she used the Nansen prize for this important humanitarian objective and that she is assisting vulnerable people."

The inauguration ceremony was also attended by First Vice-President of Burundi Yves Sahinguvu, accompanied by three cabinet ministers and senior representatives of the international community.

Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and provinces like Ruyigi have to cope with high numbers of returnees, which puts a strain on health and education facilities. Some 380,000 refugees have returned from neighbouring countries since 2002, or some 5 percent of the population.

A teacher by profession, Barankitse saved the lives of 25 children during one of the massacres in Burundi in 1993. Soon after the civil war in Burundi broke out in October of that year, she established Maison Shalom in Ruyigi. The shelter provides refuge, medical care and education for displaced and unaccompanied children, including refugees and returnees.

Maison Shalom runs a variety of projects for children in need - income-generating activities, health care, HIV/AIDS prevention, psycho-social support, family reunification, help for sexually abused youngsters and peace education.

The Nansen Refugee Award, created in 1954, is named after Fridtjof Nansen, the celebrated Norwegian polar explorer and the world's first international refugee official.

By Bernard Ntwari in Nyamutobo, Burundi