Sudanese Refugee Graduates From Ivy League School
ALLISON KEYES, Host:
I'm Allison Keyes and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.
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But, first, it's graduation season and students are strutting across the stage in their shiny robes and tassels, raising their diplomas in the air. Yet some students had a tougher walk to that stage. Morris Kaunda Michael graduated from Columbia University last week, finishing a journey that started in war torn Sudan.
More than two million people have been killed and millions more displaced during the decades of that nation's civil war. Kids were often kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers. Morris's mother hoped to spare her children that fate, so she fled with him and his six siblings to a refugee camp in Kenya when he was just five years old.
Now Morris joins us to talk about the path that led from that camp to the halls of Columbia University. He's with us in our New York bureau. Morris, welcome to the program. And congratulations.
MORRIS KAUNDA MICHAEL: Well, thank you for having me.
KEYES: I want to talk first about when you were a small child, when your family fled, what was it like living in Southern Sudan? Do you remember?
KAUNDA MICHAEL: Well, I was fairly young then. I don't remember much about South Sudan. But I remember much about the refugee camp. I remember snippets, if you could say. My mom did a good job where she protected us from any bad things and whatnot. She kept us safe. So I remember things where we just have to run to hidings and things like that. So those were about the things I remember.
KEYES: It must've been scary being so young.
KAUNDA MICHAEL: Well, very, very, very scary. I mean it was the only life I knew. I didn't really realize that there was other life other than just running every time, going to hiding and whatnot.
KEYES: Your mom managed to flee the country with you and your six siblings. How did you get from Kenya to New York?
KAUNDA MICHAEL: Oh, well, it started off from a refugee camp - Kakuma Refuge Camp. I grew up there. I spent a great deal of time there. I started off my education there. It was through the program ran by a Catholic charities branch called Dominican Sisters. They're situated in Nairobi. Their mission was to go into the refugee camp and help kids with what they call kids with potential - more like, yeah, you go - that could have a future when pursuing higher education and things like that.
So I had the privilege to be among those kids and I was taken to Nairobi to continue with my studies.
KEYES: And you had obvious potential.
KAUNDA MICHAEL: I hope so. Yes.
KEYES: What were you good at?
KAUNDA MICHAEL: I loved math and sciences mostly. So I didn't know more about engineering until I came to United States and my guidance counselor told me about it, 'cause I told him I loved math and sciences. If there was anything close to it, I would love to do that.
KEYES: So you got involved with the Dominican Sisters.
KAUNDA MICHAEL: Yes.
KEYES: And they got you from that refugee camp to the U.S.
KAUNDA MICHAEL: Yeah.
KEYES: What was it like going from a refugee camp to being in an American household? That must've been kind of a jarring transition.
KAUNDA MICHAEL: Well, it's very different. Coming from a place that you're surrounded with people who flew their home due to things like violence, economic disparity, or suppression, natural disasters and other harsh things. Just living and working conditions. It was different.
KEYES: Were the kids at school mean to you? I mean you were coming from such a different place and a different background.
KAUNDA MICHAEL: I wouldn't say actually mean, but it was just - it was a different lifestyle. I mean, I had to make my way into just get to make friends and things like that. I mean, I remember one incident specifically my first day in school, I walked into the class, I got there as fast as I could. I was five minutes late, I mean, five minutes early. And everybody walked in - it was my first day. And then the teacher walked in. And since, well, where I went to school in Kenya, when the teacher walks into the class you kind of have to stand up and acknowledge them, say things like good morning, how is your day and things like that.
KAUNDA MICHAEL: So I got up in a group - in a class of probably 20, 30 kids and I said, good morning. No one was standing up with me. So I got up because I'm used to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KAUNDA MICHAEL: Yeah, so, that was an encounter. Since then, I mean, I could tell you exactly what I went through. That's a good one.
KEYES: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes and I'm speaking with Morris Kaunda Michael. He's a Sudanese refugee who just graduated from Columbia University with a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering.
And I have to say, Morris, it's hard for even American kids to get into Columbia, much less actually graduate. What was that like for you on that campus?
KAUNDA MICHAEL: I was - it was an adventure, I have to say.
KEYES: In a good way.
KAUNDA MICHAEL: In a good way, definitely, of course. Columbia is good in that sense that they make you belong, you know. It's very diverse. There's always somebody there that had gone through or somebody that understands. So it wasn't tough. So I had a mission, in a sense. I mean, I know the position where I am, I've had a lot of friends. I've also had the privilege to live with Sudanese lost boys that had gone through that life as child soldiers and whatnot. And things they have gone through, actually strengthened me as a person. They gave me that strength. They gave me that hope. They gave me that - they gave me a reason to try to do better every day.
So when I came here, I saw the opportunities. I saw everything here. And I thought of all those people that I left behind that could have taken my position. I just thought of them every single day as I go to school as do my work. And I say, Morris, somebody else can be in your position right now. You can't mess this up. So, do the best you can.
KEYES: Wow. And I hear your next up is to medical school.
KAUNDA MICHAEL: Yes. That is the next task, actually, to medical school.
KEYES: What kind of medicine do you want to practice?
KAUNDA MICHAEL: I can't really pinpoint right now, but cardiology seems interesting, but who knows? Things change.
KEYES: Tell me, though, you've been doing some pretty amazing work while you were at Columbia. You helped create a vital signs monitor. Tell us a little bit about that.
KAUNDA MICHAEL: Well, I mean, yeah, it's - I know people are familiar with unit - the intensive care unit. When you walk in there you see kids with electrodes all on their bodies and whatnot. Yeah. So, our project was to build this device that could monitor heart rate, respiratory rate and temperature. We're working in hand with Mulago Hospital, which is situated in Uganda - capital city Kampala. And was a very touchy and very influencing project in the sense that I knew was geared toward a lower resources areas. And I knew that if this thing succeeds it would definitely help people.
KEYES: And your monitor is going to cost a lot less than what's currently on the market?
KAUNDA MICHAEL: Yes. Yes.
KEYES: Is that right?
KAUNDA MICHAEL: So, yeah. Yeah. If you - yeah - if, as most of the people know, most of the vital signs monitors out there cost nearly 1,000 to couple thousand dollars. So our device is going to - hopefully it's going to cost in the nears of about 50 to $100 and that cuts down a lot of cost.
KEYES: I've got to ask you, you still have family members in Sudan. Have you talked to them? How are they doing?
KAUNDA MICHAEL: Oh, actually, I have family members in the refugee camp.
KEYES: Ah, OK, so they're in Kenya.
KAUNDA MICHAEL: My mom (unintelligible). Yes. They're still in the refugee camp. But, yeah, most of my relatives, of course, are still in South Sudan. Well, I mean, given what had happened lately with Sudan, the dividing of the country, well, things seem like they're moving in the right way. But my family is still skeptical about it. They're still in the refugee camp. They're still trying to wait things out until the independence and see how things go.
KEYES: So you ever wonder, Morris, what would've happened to you and your brother if you had to stay in Sudan?
KAUNDA MICHAEL: I mean, that is - I haven't actually thought about that. I think a lot of things could have happened. Maybe, in most cases, probably would have ended up joining a military or something. Or maybe we just...
KEYES: By joining, you mean forced into the...
KAUNDA MICHAEL: Forced into, yeah, I probably would have been in - yeah, into the military also.
KEYES: Will you ever go back?
KAUNDA MICHAEL: Yes. That is actually my goal. I'm hoping to finish medical school and go back as a doctor and practice there to make a difference.
KEYES: Morris Kaunda Michael just graduated from Columbia University. Congratulations again.
KAUNDA MICHAEL: Thank you.
KEYES: With a bachelors in biochemical engineering. He came to America from Southern Sudan. Thanks so much for joining us and best of luck to you.
KAUNDA MICHAEL: Thank you.
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