Meet the woman behind Maison Shalom: a home to war effected children

International humanitarian and founder of Maison Shalom talks about International Women's Day and what it means to her...

Words by Marguerite Barankitse

Today, of all days, is an excellent opportunity to reflect upon the women that have inspired each of us, and guided us throughout our lives.

Looking back on my own experiences, the good and the bad, I realise that the teachings of my mother have been the forefront of my work. I’ll forever be grateful that I was fortunate enough to be raised by an extraordinary woman.

Despite being widowed at the age of 24, she continued to show me that, no matter the circumstances, love transcends all obstacles.

It is International Women’s Day, and in a world of increasing uncertainty and danger, it is clear to me that the importance of motherhood has never been greater.

Nowhere is this more true than in countries like Burundi, Syria, Afghanistan and the many other states ravaged by seemingly endless wars. It is mothers, like myself, that hold our communities together in times of unimaginable bloodshed, to provide shelter and comfort for children at risk.

This is why, in 1993 at the height of the Burundian civil war, I founded Maison Shalom; a home open to all effected children, regardless of their ethnicity.

Whether it is in Ruyigi, Aleppo, Juba or one of the countless other war zones, it is the non-combatants, women and children, that are left to hold the locals together and pick up the pieces.

Within these areas of near-constant violence, we can see some of the clearest examples of love, empathy and a willingness to care. It is these emotions which bond us all as people, regardless of race, religion or political beliefs; and it is these emotions that can end such cycles of violence.

Over half of the world’s refugees are children. At present, 250 million (one in nine) children worldwide live in ongoing conflict zones, and over 28 million children have been forced to leave their homes because of war.

The conditions these children are living in, and the threats they face, are unthinkable. I’ve witnessed first-hand Burundian children survive the risks of capture, torture and death from opposition forces, lack of healthcare or housing and the death of their families.

The role of women, and more specifically mothers, can be invaluable in providing safety, guidance and hope to those who remain in their homes, and those who need shelter.

As I’ve seen within Maison Shalom, we can also unite youngsters from warring groups; at Maison Shalom, our children are both Tutsis and Hutus, and they seek an end to the fighting that has left them orphans.  Over the past two decades, we have taken in over 30,000 war or AIDS orphans, street children, prison-born babies and the children of poverty-stricken parents.

As well as caring for them in the short term, our experience has taught us that best way to help these children, effectively and sustainably, is to develop the community in which they live.

My role as a mother and a guardian, is to instil this same belief into our children, and to prepare them to lead us to peace once they are old enough.

Last year, I was blessed to be the recipient of the inaugural Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, an award founded on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors.

The Aurora Prize awarded me for my work with Maison Shalom, and I used the award to continue to transform young refugee children, more than half of whom are girls, into tomorrow’s heroes and leaders.  The prize is named after a young Armenian woman who survived the horrors of the genocide, at great risk to herself, to champion the needs of refugees and survivors, and thus became a hero herself.

That is the message of the prize – that we can all become saviours and continue the cycle of giving.  This year’s Aurora Prize will be awarded on Sunday 28th May, and this year’s event will focus on the ongoing refugee crisis, and the importance of humanitarian aid and resilience.

There is no simple answer, or straight-forward solution, to bring peace to our world. However, I am lucky enough to have witnessed the impact that we as individuals can have, which is far greater than many would imagine.

Today is an opportune time to consider, whether big or small, what we can do to help those in need. I have an unshakeable belief that, above all else, hope and love will conquer.

Marguerite Barankitse is founder of Maison Shalom and the REMA hospital in Burundi, and Aurora Prize laureate

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