It Took a Refugee Camp to Make an Ivy League Graduate

Morris Michael earned a degree in biomedical engineering from Columbia University after leaving a Kenyan refugee camp.

The easiest, and loneliest, part of the life of Morris Kaunda Michael, 23, may have been his last eight years. That’s when the young man, originally from South Sudan, lived with an American family in Syracuse, New York, and later studied at Columbia University.

Before that, Michael had walked away from ethnic violence, dislocation and poverty in South Sudan to a dusty, sprawling Kakuma refugee camp, which now has 77,000 residents, in neighboring Kenya. But he was unlike 20,000 of his orphaned, outcast or abandoned male peers, who became known as the "Lost Boys" for their years of wandering through several countries.

Michael arrived in Kenya with one parent and his seven siblings, and he told MSNBC News that his time there was spent “under my mother’s wing.”

During his years in Kakuma, the 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Fu Foundation Engineering School and Applied Sciences with a B.S. in biomedical engineering, says he played a lot of soccer and only attended about four hours a day at school, when it was open.

After a stint at another school in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, Michael joined a foster family in Syracuse, New York, where he discovered an aptitude for math and decided to study engineering.

At Columbia, Michael was on a team that won a national prize for developing a low-cost fetal monitoring device, and he plans to work in the university labs while applying to medical school.

He is now aiming to study medicine and says, “I owe something to the world. The best I can do is to give back to the community.”

Then Michael says he will return to South Sudan to assist the world’s newest country and see his mother for the first time in many years.

(Photo: John Makely/

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