— It’s a long way from the soccer fields of Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp to the Ivy League — but Morris Kaunda Michael made the journey.
Last month, Michael, a 23-year-old Sudanese refugee, graduated from Columbia’s Fu Foundation School of Engineering with a B.S. in biomedical engineering. He hopes to continue his studies in medical school so he can use his education to help people still living in the severe poverty he left behind.
“I owe something to the world. As a refugee, you don’t have a lot of things of your own. Most things are gifts,” said Michael. “The best I can do is to give back to the community.”
Sitting on a bench in the middle of Columbia’s lush, manicured campus on a recent spring day, Michael explained his unlikely journey from southern Sudan to New York’s Upper West Side.
In 1988, Michael was born into the Didinga tribe, traditionally cattle herders and farmers, in southern Sudan near the borders of Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. At the time, Sudan was divided by a bloody civil war that pitted government forces, mostly northern Arab Muslims, against the primarily Christian or Animist African southerners.
An estimated 2 million people died as a result of violence, famine and disease related to the conflict. In addition, another 4 million southern Sudanese were displaced and moved to refugee camps in bordering countries. Michael’s family was one of them. Michael says he was just about 6 years old when his mother moved his family to Kenya’s U.N.-sponsored Kakuma refugee camp to escape the violence, instability and lack of economic opportunity in Sudan.
The refugee camp Kakuma (Swahili for “nowhere”) sits in an isolated, dusty corner of northeast Kenya. More than 77,000 refugees and internally displaced people are currently living in the camp, according to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. The most infamous victims of the Sudanese Civil War were the estimated 20,000 youngsters who became known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” Many were separated from their families when their villages were attacked while they happened to be out tending cattle, or they were able to run away; others were captured and conscripted to fight as child soldiers.
Those who survived walked thousands of miles to refugee camps like Kakuma. In 2001, the United States and the UNHCR established a special resettlement program and about 3,800 of the “Lost Boys” came to live in cities across the U.S.
But despite being a refugee from Sudan, Michael doesn’t consider himself a “Lost Boy” because he says he was “under my mother’s wing for most of the time.” He said he wouldn’t want to diminish the trauma his compatriots went through by adopting the term — for example, he was never forced to fight as a child soldier, or separated from his mother or five brothers and two sisters. “I was lucky enough to have a mother that took me out of there to a better and safer place.”
But he did live in the sprawling refugee camp for the bulk of his childhood, from 1994 to 2001. “I guess I would say I actually grew up there,” Michael said. “That’s the only thing I know — living as a refugee most of my life.”
He went to school in the camp, when it was actually operating, for about four hours a day and played a lot of soccer with his friends. But he described the atmosphere as very tough because everyone was there because they had fled repression and violence with essentially the clothes on their backs.
“There are a lot of people there who had lost basically everything, so there was a lot of hopelessness,” Michael said.
Welcome to the U.N. of Syracuse
In 2001, his luck began to change. He was offered a scholarship at a school in Nairobi run by Dominican nuns called the Emmanuel Foundation. His older brother attended the same school, and from there they began the process of applying for resettlement in the U.S.
“I thought, I could actually get a better life, get a better education, have a job, and just live a normal life like other people do,” Michael said.
In December 2003 he came to the U.S. with his older brother and was placed in the care of his foster mother, Carol Karins, in Syracuse, N.Y. He said his new home was affectionately called the “U.N. of Syracuse” because Karins hosted a number of refugees from other countries: When he arrived there were two other young men from Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, and during his time others came from Burma, India and Honduras.
Michael settled into American life with the help of Karins and improved his English and communication skills by watching shows like “Seinfeld” and “Cosby.” Asked if he knew the famous real-life “Seinfeld” restaurant (“Monk’s Diner” on the show) just a few blocks from the gates to Columbia, he exclaimed, “Yes! When I came I was, ‘Yeah, I know that!’ ”
Karins, who has five children of her own as well as four grandchildren, described Michael as an extremely outgoing, diligent young man who would “burn the midnight oil” to get his homework done. She said that he threw himself into his new life, calling her “Mom” and giving her a big hug as she handed him a winter coat when he first arrived in frigid Syracuse days before Christmas.
“I think there are people that go through hardships, all different kinds of hardships, [who] are able to see the positive. Morris has taken all the hardships that he’s endured, and turned them into positive steps,” Karins said.
Michael said he had never even thought of going to college until he came to the U.S. As a high school student, he loved math and science, so his guidance counselor suggested he look into engineering programs.
“I owe a lot to a lot of people,” Michael said. “Columbia, I would say, was the family I always wished to have. They helped me a lot.”
Still, the academics were challenging. “I felt really humbled. I didn’t feel like I was among the smartest in the classroom. I had to always work very hard. It encourages you — you don’t do well today, you work harder and then the next day, you’d probably do fine.”
Samuel Sia, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia, described Michael as an “outstanding student.”
“He's done great research in our lab and he's done that while being a student in really one of the most difficult majors — engineering,” Sia told NBC News. “It's a very difficult discipline to begin with, [and] biomedical engineering is also very challenging.”
Sia added that the major requires a lot of math, calculus and biology — subjects that would be difficult for any student. “Overall, he's just been an excellent student — regardless of his background.” He said that Michael never really talked about his background and the challenges he had overcome — Sia didn’t even know about them until recently.
Michael said that one of the things that inspired him about his major was working on practical solutions for problems in the developing world. He was part of a team of students that won a national prize for developing a low-cost fetal monitoring device that measures things like heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature. Most devices currently on the market cost approximately $2,000, but the device Michael’s group developed would cost more like $50 to $200, so it could implemented anywhere — including a hospital in a developing country.
As for the future, Michael has a job working in one of the labs at Columbia and plans to apply to medical school during the coming year.
While anything seems easy after living in a refugee camp for years, he still has to deal with the more mundane challenges of any recent college graduate, like finding affordable housing in New York City. But he is eager for the next step. “I’m actually beginning to see the aftermath of everything; that I’m actually going to live as an adult. Pay rent and things like that. It’s tough, but it’s exciting,” he said.
Still his biggest takeaway from college and moving to the U.S. is, “There are opportunities everywhere. If you work hard, you get what you want.”
He also doesn’t want to characterize his education as a burden, but he is keenly aware of the tremendous opportunities he’s been given and the need to make the most of them.
“There are a lot of refugees out there struggling. They feel like they don’t really belong anymore. They feel like they’ve lost it. There is no chance they can get up and do it anymore. So I wanna tell them that they can do it. I am here. I tried my best. I am not the smartest person, but I tried; I worked hard.”