Engineering Degree in Hand, Former Sudanese Refugee Vows to Return Home

Melanie Farmer
May 12, 2011

At age 5, Morris Kaunda Michael fled with his family from war-torn Sudan for a refugee camp in northern Kenya. Now he is graduating from Columbia Engineering with an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering and planning to go to medical school. One day, Michael says, he’ll return to his home country—which he has not seen in 17 years—to help the Sudanese as others have helped him.

“All I’ve known throughout my life is living the refugee life,” says Michael. “But I’ve always had arms stretching out to help me. I feel like I have roots everywhere. With that, I feel like I owe it to the world to help people around me, too.”

Indeed, Michael applied to the engineering school in large part because of its opportunities to mentor and tutor underserved students in the surrounding neighborhoods.

“Community service is a big part of my life,” says Michael, who also volunteers at the Drew Hamilton Learning Center in Harlem. “I never feel that I give enough to the world no matter what I do.”

Michael, 22, was born in southern Sudan in the middle of a civil war that lasted more than two decades, killing more than 2 million and displacing another 4 million. The youngest of eight, he was raised by his mother and stepfather primarily in the refugee camp in northern Kenya. Early on, Michael’s mother observed that he excelled in his studies, and he credits her for finding opportunities to advance his education.

When he was 14, Michael joined his older brother, James, at a refugee camp in Nairobi, where he began high school. There, they were looked after by the Dominican Sisters, who helped them apply for a resettlement program in the United States. At age 16, Michael headed for America with his brother.

They arrived in the dead of winter in Chicago, where they had to change planes. “I’ll never forget it,” says Michael. “We only had T-shirts on. I’d heard about winter and seen it on TV but I had no idea how cold it was going to be.” At their final destination, Syracuse, N.Y., Michael’s foster mother was waiting at the airport with open arms and “with heavy, heavy jackets. I was so happy,” he says.

Adjusting to life in the U.S. was difficult, recalls Michael, but he excelled in high school, especially in math and science. His high school counselor suggested engineering school.

Once at Columbia, Michael, who was among the top three graduates in his high school senior class, found himself “challenged” and “humbled.” “When I look around campus, I see people with ambition,” he says. “That drives me. It keeps me on my toes and helps me to focus.”

For his senior design project, Michael fashioned a vital signs monitor to monitor a patient’s heart rate, respiratory levels and body temperature. Normally such devices start at $1,000 apiece; his would cost between $50 and $200 and is intended for hospitals in developing countries. It may get a trial run in Uganda as early as this summer.

Michael plans to stay at Columbia after he graduates to work in Professor Samuel Sia’s research lab while applying to medical school. “Whatever career path Morris chooses,” says Sia, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, “I am sure it will be a rewarding one. He is affable in nature but also very thoughtful about his work.”

Eventually, Michael hopes to return to Sudan. Though it’s been years since he saw his mother, she continues to inspire him during their rare phone calls.

“She is amazing,” he says. “She is proud of me, but I am more proud of her. Wherever she is, she always makes me see beyond what I am going through. She makes me never think that I am just a refugee but that I could be a better person.”