This woman single-handedly saved 30,000 orphan children - now she's a refugee

Born in Rwanda, Marguerite Barankitse has dedicated her life to raising thousands of children from violence and abuse. Now her own life is in danger.

Maggy Thumb

Born in Rwanda, Marguerite Barankitse has dedicated her life to raising thousands of children from violence and abuse. Now her own life is in danger.

When Marguerite was 37, Tutsi soldiers came to her village in Burundi (a country in Eastern Africa, on the border of Rwanda and Tanzania) with machetes. They wanted to exact revenge on the people – known as Hutus - who they blamed for killing members of their own ethnic group, and they didn't care who got in their way. ‘I was scared, of course I was scared,’ Maggy remembers, twisting her hands in the palm of her lap over twenty years later. ‘But I could not let this happen. I could not stand there and let them kill my friends and my family. I had to say something.’

As a Tutsi, Maggy's life was not in danger. Still, she spoke up – pleading with the soldiers to lay down their weapons. They didn’t listen, and stripped her naked before tying her to a chair. As she begged them to stop, they set fire to the building where her friends were hiding. When people fled the burning structure screaming in fear, the soldiers took out their knives, and butchered them on the floor. Then they threw Maggy’s best friend's head into her lap, and left.

‘I knew that day, in October 1993, that I had to stand up and do something,’ the now-60 year old tells Marie Claire. ‘I took 25 children, who had seen their families killed in front of them, and I told them, I will be your family. I will be your mum. You are not alone. You are never alone.’

Persuading a German aid worker to give them shelter, Maggy put her work as a teacher on hold in order to raise the two dozen youngsters she found in her care. ‘I told my children, “you are not Tutsi or Hutu any more, you are one",' she says. ‘"You are the new generation. You will lead with love." It is not hard to raise a peaceful generation when you raise them with peace.’

What is hard, is finding the funds to feed them. Relying upon donations from strangers and local NGOs, Maggy insisted upon taking in every child who turned up at her door. As word spread of her generosity, she left the aid worker’s house, and moved into buildings owned by the Catholic church – naming her initiative Maison Shalom, and opening similar refuges in neighbouring towns. Over the next 20 years, she rescued over 30,000 more orphaned children – refusing to turn away anyone who was in need. She taught them to read, write, and support one another, regardless of their ethnic origin. And after realising that reintegration into society was key to progression across the country, she and her team of volunteers began investing their time in tracking down surviving family members and neighbours of the orphans, helping them financially to take their children back into their homes.

‘We have no money, but that doesn’t worry me because I know that together we will always find a way,’ she explains. ‘When you die, your money will not follow you. You can’t take your bank account with you. Nobody can write you a cheque. All you will take with you are the faces of the people who you have loved.’

Maggy with fellow Aurora Prize finalist, Syeda Ghulam Fatima, from Pakistan.

Now, despite winning the inaugural Aurora Prize For Awakening Humanity – an award celebrating everyday people who do extraordinary things (not to mention supported by George Clooney, and anticipated to grow as large as the Nobel Peace Prize), Maggy is currently living in a refugee camp in Rwanda, after her calls for peace in Burundi were met with threats of more violence.

‘The President is scared of me, because I am not scared of him,’ she explains, adding that when she fled Burundi last year, she fled with nothing. Nothing mattered, she says, aside from the lives of the children. ‘He is killing so many, many people, and the international communities are doing nothing to stop him. In the space of 12 months, more than 250,000 people have fled the country. Hutus and Tutsis and the President’s friends are all fleeing together, because he is so corrupt. He is castrating children. Teenagers. Boys. I have the photos on my phone of their injuries, because nobody believes me when I say how bad things are. In September, he decided to kill any man between the ages of 18 and 35, to show everyone his power, and to show that if you open your mouth, you will get the same. The humanitarian situation is catastrophic. Nobody will stand up to him.’

‘My faith and my children keep me strong. I would not be alive if it was not for my religion. But as a woman, you have so much power. Every morning, you just need to look in the mirror to see that you are amazing. We can distribute happiness and give life and kindness to the world. We have love in our eyes and our hands and around us. One day, I was in the Vatican to give a testimony of hope, and I looked around, and I said, ‘You know, the reason why there is no hope in the Catholic Church already is because there are no women here! But yet, every morning, you say ‘Mother of God, pray for us’. You never say ‘Father of God.’ So you see, even God needs a mother.’ If you want to destroy the world, then you must destroy women. And nobody can do that. No matter how hard they try.’

‘I will go back to Burundi,’ she adds. ‘Nobody will stop me from going back. I am 60 years old – who can stop me? Even now, there is an international mandate for my arrest, but I am not afraid. I travel freely. If they arrest me, OK, I’ll go to jail. But they can’t put my heart in jail. And they can’t put my love in jail either.’

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