KAKUMA REFUGEE CAMP, Kenya -- At Morris Michael's graduation, the mother who shepherded him out of a Sudanese war zone and inspired his love of learning wasn't among the proud parents thronging Columbia University's stately Manhattan campus.
Mama Elizabeth -- as her family and neighbors call her -- was here, in a dirt-floored compound she shares with 14 relatives, in a United Nations-run refugee camp that sprawls across the barren landscape of northern Kenya. She has not seen 22-year-old Morris, or his older brother, James, since they left eight years ago to attend high school in the United States.
Contact information ( * required )
"Tell them, 'Your mama is greeting you and God bless you,'" she tells a visiting reporter.
Morris was 5 when his mother -- at that point raising seven children on her own -- decided it was time to flee their village, Chukudum, in Southern Sudan, as a civil war convulsed the region. Over 22 years, an estimated 2 million people died and another 4 million were displaced.
Morris was among the lucky ones. He not only reached a peaceful, affluent sanctuary in the U.S., but prospered there. And despite eight years and thousands of miles of separation, he remains deeply grateful to his mother, just as she is proud of him.
A major decision lies ahead, both for Morris and for his family in the refugee camp: Should they return to their homeland now that it has completed its secession from the north -- just this month -- and become the independent nation of south Sudan?
Morris is tempted by the prospect of helping build a new country. But first, he wants to become a doctor.
He is working at a Columbia lab this summer, preparing to apply to medical school after receiving his bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering in May. He was able to reach his mother by telephone after the ceremony, the latest in a sporadic series of calls that have been their only direct communication over the years. As always, she told her son to tend to his own life, and not to be concerned with the world he left behind.
"She never complains. She never wants us to worry," he says. "She'll say, `I'll be fine. Make sure you do your part."'
Amid the long, chaotic war, thousands of boys in Southern Sudan became parentless refugees -- the "Lost Boys." Thanks to Elizabeth Michael, Morris was never one of them.
In 1993, she and her children walked for four days from Chukudum to the northern Kenya town of Lokichoggio, where they boarded U.N. transport to Kakuma.
"We were just walking, carrying a little drinking water and some uncooked maize," she says. "We followed the road but from the bush -- we dodged the bombs."
"We thank God we are still alive up to now," she adds, quietly.
Kakuma -- a maze of mud-walled, tin-roofed shelters -- has been her home for 18 years. In all, it accommodates nearly 80,000 east and central Africans who fled for their lives from some of the worst of the continent's recent wars, in Congo, Somalia, Sudan and elsewhere.
To Morris, the camp initially seemed like "heaven on earth" after he arrived there as a little boy.
"It was the only place I knew," he says. "My mother did a great job of making sure we were safe. She'd say, `Don't look down on yourself. Be positive."'
There were many difficult times, however. Food stocks ebbed and flowed, cholera and malaria lurked as health risks, floods occasionally wreaked havoc. Many refugees chafed at being dependent on the U.N. and unable to earn a living for themselves.
Mama Elizabeth did her best -- teaching her own children to read and working for 13 years as a kindergarten teacher before budget cuts eliminated the job.
By 2001, Morris was doing well at school, and a Roman Catholic nun recruited him to further his studies at a church-run boarding school in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital about 370 miles (600 kilometers) south of Kakuma. His older brother, James, also studied there.
Morris says he tried to keep in touch with his family by mail.
"Even when I was young, my mother would force me to write letters to myself, so it became a habit," he says. "Every semester I'd send her maybe five letters, telling her how my life was going."
In December 2003, Morris and James flew to Syracuse, N.Y. -- part of a program aimed at connecting young refugees with foster families so they could complete high school in the United States. It was bitter cold when they arrived; Morris remembers being grateful that his foster mother had a winter coat waiting for him.
High school, from the very first day, was a challenge.
Instilled with the traditional British-style regimens of Kenyan schools, Morris rose from his seat when the teacher arrived for his first social studies class, and said, "Good morning, sir."
"No one else got up," Morris recalls. "Everyone was staring at me, like, `Who is this guy?"'
He struggled to fit in, aided by strong support from teachers. Eventually, he found a comfort zone with other foreign-born students who played soccer and studied English together.
He also found a new way to communicate with his family in Kakuma, sending emails to an acquaintance in Nairobi who would print the message and find someone to carry it to the refugee camp, a process that could take weeks.
"In the critical times of my life, even when she wasn't there, I felt she was still there," he says. "She's been a pillar of my life, the support I need when I'm down. I'd just think, `What would she tell me to do at this point of time?"'
With a talent for math and science, Morris was encouraged to consider college engineering programs, and won admission to Columbia's -- one of the most competitive.
"I felt more humbled, being surrounded by people who had even more ambitions than I had," Morris says. "It became a home for me. I met friends from all over the world. I felt I was meant to be part of this community."
Even when there were occasional moments of cultural discomfort, Morris said he was determined to focus on the bigger picture.
"I'm here, living a life that I never thought of, that people in Kakuma never experienced," he says. "Every day I try to do better, do something to help the people back home."
Each summer in New York, he tried to line up a job or paid internship so he could wire money back to his family. He also was able to speak to them occasionally by phone, with advance planning, after some of his mother's neighbors in the camp acquired cellphones.
Meanwhile, he excelled at school. For his senior project, he helped design a vital-signs monitoring device that could be produced at low cost for hospitals in the developing world.
Morris has three brothers and two sisters still living with their mother in Kakuma, including 21-year-old Paul, who wants to follow Morris by studying engineering abroad, and Grace, 29, the mother of four young children. "Morris is becoming big!" exclaims Grace, astonished by photos of her younger brother in New York.
Morris says his siblings have often asked him when he will return to Africa.
"If I go back, I want to go back as a better person -- I want to be a doctor," he says. "It would uplift my family and it would help my mom in a lot of ways ... I could tell her, `What a great job you've done."'
Mama Elizabeth, now 56, walks with the help of a blue metal cane; a pain in her right leg has worsened recently. She struggles slightly to arise from the ground to greet a reporter and photographer who are looking for Morris' family at Kakuma.
"I am the mother of the boy," she says in clear, slow English.
They tell her of her son's accomplishments, and she says she was very happy; she wants him to "be strong" as he continues his education. She also sends greetings to James, the elder brother who works for a television station in Syracuse.
There is poignancy to her words.
"They don't know that I have grown old," she says. "I want them to come and greet me hand in hand."
"Maybe tell them, 'Your brothers and sisters have grown up. If there is a way for you to come home and see them ...'" Her voice trails off.
Some U.N. officials at Kakuma are trying hard to encourage the southern Sudanese refugees to return to their homeland now that it is independent. But Mama Elizabeth isn't ready to do so yet, having heard reports of problems -- cattle raids, harassment by soldiers, lack of food -- that some newly returned southerners have faced back home.
A widow with more than a dozen dependents, including children, grandchildren, and her siblings, she must make decisions on behalf of the whole clan. And life in a refugee camp is all she's known for 18 years.
"I'm not thinking that this place is comfortable," she says. "Sudan is in my heart. I am only staying here because of the kids."
"Once these children have finished education, we will go," she says. Her youngest child, Comboni, is 13, and was born in the camp.
Morris, amid his heavy academic workload in New York, has tried to keep up with the flow of news about Sudan -- though he suggests that he, like his mother, is not preoccupied by politics. He would have been happy if Sudan had found a harmonious way of remaining unified, but is now reconciled to the South's secession and hopes to return there someday.
From afar, he's heard sobering tales about childhood friends -- and his second-oldest brother, John -- who have already gone back to south Sudan, only to find a shortage of jobs.
"They kind of lose hope," Morris says. "I want to be a testimony to them that schools do actually matter."
He also wants to repay a debt of sorts -- to his mother and other refugee parents who took risks and made sacrifices so their children might survive to rebuild their country in peace.
"I feel like I owe it to them to go back there to continue what they started, to do something to better Sudan," Morris says.
"It's that strength they have, that love they have that you can't explain in words ... they would walk for days just to get the young ones in position where they feel safe and can explore their dreams."