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Deo's amazing odyssey makes for a heart-wrenching tale

Meet Deo, short for Deogratias, which Latin scholars know translates into thank God.

And Deo, the focal point of a heart-wrenching tale of survival under life-threatening, spirit-sapping, and emotionally challenging conditions, has much God-thanking to do.

Deo, you see, was a medical student in Burundi, a neighbor of Rwanda. Getting to that academic height was quite an accomplishment for the son of a poor cow-herder who never wore shoes and was obligated to work from dawn to dusk with his father. But it all came apart when Burundi was overcome by the same kind of Hutu-Tutsi conflict that its neighbor was enduring. For Deo, a Tutsi, his homeland was not safe.

With the help of friends and neighbors, Deo manages to elude Hutu rebels who, with slaughter on their minds, invaded the clinic where he was working. He walked for miles, for weeks, hiding in underbrush, avoiding crowds of refugees, witnessing atrocities. Hutus, it seems, were fond of dismembering their victims, sometimes while they were still breathing.

With the help of friends -- and he meets many of them in "Strength" -- Deo, his only language French, manages to find his way to the United States with $200 in his pocket and no comprehension what those he encounters were saying. His ordeal begins anew.

He sleeps on the floor in an abandoned building in Harlem, but after other occupants rob him, he takes up residence in Central Park. He finds a job as a delivery man for a grocery store and suffers the indignities his cruel boss and hurtful co-workers heap upon him.

But it is by delivering groceries that his life changes. A former nun to whom he brings groceries befriends him. She buys him clothes. She takes him to a doctor and a dentist, and gives him hope and purpose. Best of all, she introduces him to Charlie and Nancy Wolf, he a college professor, she an artist.

They take him in. They get him a lawyer to untangle his immigration troubles. They enroll him in Columbia University, pay the $6,000 tuition so he can learn English and study arts and science. In one class, defying the academic protocol in Burundi, he challenges a professor who argues animals are not rational.

"Deo tried to digest this. He had known cows and he had known militiamen, and for rationality he thought he'd take cows any day."

Incongruously for a penniless refugee who arrived in the United States so traumatized he sometimes confused past and present, Deo graduates from Columbia and then attends Harvard's School of Public Health.

It is here the author enters the tale. Kidder, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, relates how he met Deo and how he accompanies Deo back to his homeland, to a reunion with his parents, to the clinic he fled while Hutus hunted Tutsis.

In "Strength," Kidder not only provides readers with what the subtitle proclaims, "a journey of remembrance and forgiveness," he also gives a history lesson on the ethnic conflict between Hutus and Tutsis in both Burundi and Rwanda.

If the work has any faults, it is that sometimes Kidder moved too abruptly from one segment to the next. For instance, much excitement ensues at the Wolf apartment when this African immigrant first sees snow. But nowhere does the author reveal Deo's impressions on seeing for the first time flakes of white falling from the sky. And again, when Deo returns to Burundi for the first time to meet his parents ("He would never forgive himself if they died while he was waiting for his green card") Kidder leaves the reader wondering for 39 pages if he even met his parents.

Nonetheless, this journey of remembrance and forgiveness is a riveting read. Could this all be happening to one man? Where does a person find the fortitude, the strength to survive? Kidder's work could be a fairy tale. It has an oppressed central character. It has an abundance of fairy godmothers and godfathers. And, like all good fairy tales, it has a happy ending.

The final pages detail how Deo returns to his homeland, marshals money and manpower and starts to build a medical clinic to offer free health care in a remote Burundian village.

Lee Coppola is the dean of St. Bonaventure University's Jandoli School of Journalism and a former Buffalo print and television reporter.



Strength in What Remains
By Tracy Kidder
Random House
277 pages, $26

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