Former child refugee, rescued by Winnipeggers, returns to Burundi to open health clinic

Winnipeggers gave him a chance for a better life. Now a former child refugee has returned to Burundi to realize his dream of opening a health clinic.

'It's the best thing I could have done,' says Jackson Nahayo, whose life story reads like a movie

Thirty-year-old Jackson Nahayo, far left, and staff at the Ubuntu Clinic, which was founded by the former child refugee. ((Supplied))

Jackson Nahayho is realizing his dream of giving back to the country he had to flee as a child.

He was only six when he and his older sister were kidnapped by rebel fighters during ethnic conflicts in Cibitoke province, Burundi.

The siblings were at school when they were captured with other children in 1992.

"I guess I was the mouthy one," said Nahayo, now 30.

He recalled that he didn't like the way the rebels treated his older sister.

"They made her work so hard, so I told them that God would punish them."

Beaten unconscious, abandoned in forest

Nahayo's captors beat the six-year-old unconscious. When he woke up, he was alone in the forest.

Nahayo said he followed other people fleeing Cibitoke province, bordered by Rwanda and Congo — a region he describes as vulnerable to war. He ended up in Congo until war broke out in 1995, when he travelled to Zambia.

In Zambia, he met the people he describes as "my Canadian parents": Winnipeggers Rob Neufeld and Lois Coleman Neufeld, who were working for the Mennonite Central Committee.

Nahayo moved in with the Neufelds and started going to high school. In 2002, they all moved back to Winnipeg and Nahayo enrolled in Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute.

A turning point

After graduation in 2005, another turning point: A friend of Nahayo travelled to Burundi and discovered that Nahayo's family members, including the sister he had been kidnapped with, were alive and living together in Cibitoke province.

"That was the happiest moment of my life," said Nahayo. "All this time I had this wound in my heart. It healed in 2005."

All this time I had a wound in my heart. It healed in 2005.- Jackson Nahayo

Nahayo travelled to Burundi that June to reconnect with his family. It was an eye-opening trip, he said.

"I'm coming from an environment where we would throw grapes at each other in school [in Winnipeg], and here [in Burundi] I'm in a community where no one goes to school, people get sick," he said.

"I felt guilty in a way. I went back to Canada a different person."

Nahayo resolved to make a difference and dreamed of returning to Burundi to open a health clinic. He studied nursing through a joint program at Red River College and the University of Manitoba. He worked tree planting in the summer and on oil rigs in the winter to raise money to build the clinic.

Making a difference

Nahayo began collecting used medical equipment through International Hope Canada, a Winnipeg-based charitable organization that donates medical supplies to impoverished countries. Interviews on CBC Radio had listeners calling him, offering used wheelchairs and blood pressure machines.

By 2013, Nahayo had a 40-foot container full of medical equipment ready to be shipped to Burundi, and he headed home to live with his family.

"It was the biggest scary thing," he said. "The little guy who just graduated, having this dream. But I really, from the heart, hoped that it would work."

'It was the biggest scary thing...But I really from the heart hoped that it would work.- Jackson Nahayo

Over the next two years, he built the building, got electricity from two kilometres away, worked with local people to get running water, and dealt with government bureaucracy.

Finally, on April 25, Jackson Nahayo opened Ubuntu Clinique.

The clinic includes a lab and pharmacy and serves a need in the community.

"I'm the only one in the area that can help with hypertension, cardiac issues, diabetes and liver problems," said Nahayo.

"We get old-school diseases like tetanus and meningitis that need heavy-duty antibiotics that cost a lot. But people can't even afford malaria treatment, which is about $3 US."

Uncertain future

The inability of his patients to pay for their medication is hurting the clinic. Nahayo's pharmacy owes about $1,000 US already for medication he has supplied for free. He also needs more equipment for the lab and a fridge to keep medication cool.

Nahayo said patients often slip away before paying. In other private clinics, people who can't pay are often forced to work off their bills, but that's a practice he wants to avoid.

He has initiated several community projects to employ people, but it's been challenging.

Years ago, while living in Winnipeg, he started an NGO called CEEDAY, which has yielded some agricultural enterprises and a resource centre that acts as an orphanage. Some children who have grown up in the orphanage are now working for Nahayo in the clinic.

Nahayo said he worries about how long he can keep the clinic open, given the lack of resources in the community.

"It's a very scary thought," he admitted. "I have hope because I got lots of help along the way to build it."

He said he's prepared to come back to Canada and return to tree planting in order to keep the clinic open.

"I won't let this close. I think it's the best thing I could have done in life."

Donations for Jackson Nahayo's Ubuntu Medical Clinic in Burundi are being accepted by the DeFehr Foundation.