Every first-generation college student faces challenges on their path to earning a degree, but the challenges Hassan Suleiman faced were literally life and death.
Suleiman is one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, a group of approximately 20,000 boys aged 7 to 17 who were orphaned or displaced by the genocide in Sudan. The genocide began in 2003 when two groups, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) and the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), rebelled against the corrupt Khartoum government. In response, the government deployed the Janjaweed, an Arab militia group, to violently quell the rebellion by attacking non-Arab villages in Darfur. One of those villages was Kenyno, where Suleiman lived with his mother and siblings. His village was attacked in 2004. He was eight years old.
“When they attacked us, everyone ran away, so they surround our village. Some of my village people tried to fight them but we had no power,” Suleiman said. “The men they killed, and the small children, if the child was a boy, they throw them on the fire.”
Suleiman managed to escape into the bush and met up with some other boys who had escaped the carnage. A group of eight, the boys set out through the jungle on foot. The Janjaweed had destroyed the food in the village, so the boys had to sustain themselves on what the jungle provided.
“We just ate tree leaves and fruit from the trees in the jungle. We thought, ‘our life is gone,’ but we thought, “We’re together, we have eight people, let’s go.’ So, we just keep going through the jungle.”
As they fled, they came across others from the village who were wounded, dead or dying, but there was nothing the boys could do to save them.
“You see someone you know well, your neighbor or your uncle, dead, and you cannot stop. You are just trying to save your life,” Suleiman said, a tear rolling down his cheek as he recalled the horror of the attack.
The boys spent three to five weeks making their way through the jungle to the border between Sudan and South Sudan in the Nuba Mountains, an area controlled by the SLA. The boys had walked more than 1,000 miles, and it was there they first made contact with refugee relief agencies that would help Suleiman and the others come to the U.S.
“They told me, you are a very young guy. Forget about your parents, we’re going to take care of you,” he said. “They told us, ‘You’re going to America,’ and we were like, ‘How?’ We don’t know where our parents are and instead of going back and looking for them, we’re being sent to another place.”
Suleiman was moved to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where he stayed for five years, waiting for a refugee sponsor so he could come to America. Conditions in the camp were harsh and Suleiman said many of the refugees staying there were overcome with hopelessness and tried to take their own lives. Suleiman’s best friend, who was with him in Kakuma, hung himself. While he admits the thought crossed his mind, he said the hope of finding his mother and siblings again gave him strength.
“I can’t do that. Instead of dying, I can help somebody. I can’t forget my family. If they are alive, I cannot,” he said.
After years of waiting, Suleiman finally received sponsorship from a Catholic church in Louisville in 2011 and came to America. “It’s a good place,” he said. “I appreciate the people who brought me here and tried to change my life.”
Once he arrived in America, Suleiman had one goal: to find his mother and his identical twin brother, Huessin, and bring them to America. While he was staying in Louisville, Suleiman decided he wanted to get an education, an opportunity he would never have had in Sudan. Kenyno was an agricultural village and Suleiman said if he had not left Africa, he would likely still be there, working the fields and tending cattle. He asked a neighbor in Louisville how he could go to school and his neighbor helped him enroll at Jefferson Community College (JCC) in 2012. In 2016, he was contacted by a transfer counselor from Morehead State and was accepted within three days of applying.
Suleiman had a friend bring him to town so he could explore the campus and the area. He said that, because he’s from a small village, Morehead felt familiar to him.
“Morehead is a small place, and I was also born in a small village, so I like to be in the country. When I come here, I feel like I am home,” he said.
One of his professors at JCC was an MSU alumnus, and he told him it was the best college in the state. So, Suleiman transferred to MSU and started taking prerequisite classes. He knew he wanted to do something in the medical field because he had seen firsthand how vital access to medical care is.
“I need to help people. I was young, but I remember, many women die while pregnant. Some people die with an easy disease where I’ve seen people over here treating it. We don’t have any medical access in my place. You have to travel one day to get medical. People die for nothing because of lack of medical access,” he said. “I thought, let me get in something good that’s medical. Money is nothing-I need to just help people.”
Suleiman eventually settled on radiology, and after taking some prerequisites, enrolled in MSU’s radiological sciences associate degree program. The program has a small cohort, so students and professors form close bonds with one another.
“I came over here, not knowing anybody. Any class, when I go, people love me, so I stay. I regard them as my brothers and sisters, the people in my class, and they love me, and I love them too, so much.”– Hassan Suleiman
Suleiman’s classmates had nothing but kind things to say about him.
“Hassan’s been a big part of our time here,” said Madelyn Rogers, a junior from Blaine. “He’s brought a lot of light into our days.”
“He’s a hard worker and he’s reaping his rewards,” said another classmate, junior LeShea Fugate of Sandy Hook.
Shortly after he arrived in Morehead, Suleiman reached a milestone in his plan for his life here in America: he located his mother and his older brother, Sadig, who were at a refugee camp in Chad. He had not spoken to his mother in 12 years and said she told him she thought he had been killed in the attack on Kenyno when the family was separated. Suleiman learned that Huessin was alive and living in Uganda, and his two other brothers and three sisters had all escaped the attack.
“She said, ‘We’re alive, we’ll meet one day. Now I am good. You are in a good place. You are safe,’” he said.
In the fall of 2017, Suleiman reached another milestone when he was sworn in as a United States citizen. His classmates held a celebration to honor the occasion, and it was then that Suleiman revealed to them all he had endured.
“That was a very beautiful day, and we were very happy to be a part and to celebrate with him,” said Jeffery Fannin (90), associate professor of imaging sciences. “We get very close to our students and they just become a part of us.”
Suleiman expressed gratitude to Fannin, who he said has helped him through every step of earning his degree.
“For two years, he always have my back,” he said, turning to Fannin as he spoke. “If not you, I can’t do it.”
Suleiman said there are many things America has to offer, but one stands out above the rest and is the main reason people from all parts of the globe choose to build lives here.
“It’s a world community. You can find people from everywhere, why? One thing-opportunity. You get freedom. You get to be safe. You can achieve your dream. You get to get an education. Once you get done with school, you can take a job easily. In Sudan, with a college degree, you cannot find a job because of corruption,” he said. “America is the best place for someone to change their life.”
Suleiman graduated in May and was offered a job at Jewish Hospital in Louisville, where he worked his clinical practice hours. However, he decided to turn down the offer so he can earn a bachelor’s degree. He will begin MSU’s Computed Tomography and Magnetic Resonance (CTMR) program in July.