There are no words to describe the feeling a student as he or she readies for that historic moment of graduating from college. Walking down the aisle in cap and gown with the joy, adulation, and relief that their studies have been completed but for Sheku Mansaray, St. John’s Staten Island Commencement Exercises on Saturday, May 15, 2010, it was a bittersweet day for him as he walks down the aisle toward graduation with a heavy heart.
Maimed by rebels at the age of 12 back in 1998 in his homeland of Kono in the Eastern part of Sierra Leone, Sheku’s life was left in ruins with no arms and one functioning eye the result of a savage attack on him and his family that led to the murder of his mother Kumba and father Mankoro right before his eyes.
Sheku received an undergraduate degree in Legal Studies from the university, but he laments that it will be “just another rainy day” in his life with no family to share in his accomplishments. The day was not lost on his adopted friends, care-givers and fellow graduates who were by his side to cheer him, and Rev. Donald J. Harrington, C.M., President of St. John’s University, who beared witness to the conferral of his degree six years after promising him this unique opportunity.
“It’s difficult for me to get excited,” said Sheku. “I have worked hard to get to this point (graduation) but it’s been very difficult and a big challenge. It’s all about having patience when you are disabled and accepting who you are and continuing on with your life. That’s what keeps me going. Some days I have sadness in my heart and other days are a little better. I’ve tried to put the past behind me so that it will not diminish my future plans.”
He entered St. John’s University and Rev. Harrington, C.M. in 2004 at a cocktail reception for a scholarship dinner benefitting the University. The event was attended by the President, Nancy and Dr. Andrew Passeri who were being honored with the President’s Medal, given by the University for their charitable and philanthropic work. Sheku’s name came up in conversation because Mrs. Passeri was looking for tutoring help for this young man who had come to America for a chance at a new life and a valuable education. He was having difficulty in the area of mathematics and the Passeri’s asked for advice for tutoring help. Rev. Harrington, C.M., said that he would go one step better and offer a full-scholarship to Sheku once his academic standing in high school was complete.
“My wife asked Rev. Harrington for that offer in writing,” said Dr. Passeri with a laugh. “She didn’t want the moment to pass without some kind of guarantee. Rev. Harrington was a man of his word and his good deeds have come true. It is a great face of humanity on the university’s part and we’re very proud of how far Sheku has come.”
His horrific story goes back to April 1998 and has brought about a lifeline of support from halfway around the world, as many have aided in the rescue effort for Sheku and others who were suffering just like him.
The International Rotary Society had established a program called Gift of Life to help Third World countries with medical attention for those with serious heart ailments. When hearing of the strife in Sierra Leone, Rotary members Matthew Mirones (Owner of Arimed Prosthetics), “Uncle” Joe Mandarino and Carmine DeSantis (who have both since passed on) wanted to do the same type of project and named it Gift of Limbs in supplying prosthetics to injured young men and woman who had fallen victim to war and bloodshed in Sierra Leone.
“I became involved as a volunteer driving these kids to the hospital for treatment,” said Nancy Passeri, wife of Dr. Andrew Passeri, former President of the Staten Island University Hospital. “Originally six young people were brought to Staten Island to be fitted for prosthetics for a period of three months which included extensive rehabilitation at the hospital.”
A total community effort began to snowball and give of their time and resources. “The outreach by the entire Staten Island community was remarkable from hotels for lodging to the Arimed Prosthetics company in donating their services, as well the staff of Staten Island University Hospital who gave medical, dental and other services by donating their time and efforts,” added Mrs. Passeri. “During those three month period the kids began to trust me and tell me about other victims they knew back in Sierra Leone and that is how we came to know Sheku’s story.”
Through the trauma of the rebels bursting into his home, the attack and the nights alone in the bush with his father’s brother fighting to stay alive stripped naked and bleeding profusely he would be rescued by Nigerian soldiers who would finally get him the medical attention he needed some 8 days later. He lost considerable amounts of blood and was semi-conscious when found, and if not for the quick thinking of his uncle who used his shirt as a tourniquet to stop him from bleeding out he would not have been alive to tell his story.
Fate would step in a few years later (after Sheku was banished to a Sierra Leone Amputee Camp) in the company of Uncle Joe. Mr. DeSantis, Dr. Passeri and his wife took the next step to bring Sheku to the U.S. but the move wasn’t without hesitation because of shelter and medical treatment as well as political asylum issues. Dr. Passeri soon agreed to the request and told his wife, “why not one more child” which made the grand total 7 youths in all that were extended care with the plan of sending them back home. A love affair ensued with these seven lost souls, and for fear of safety, and vandalism of their new fitted limbs, the International Rotary and its backers were passionate about saving these young lives by not sending them back to the war-torn zone. As Mrs. Passeri put it, “it would have been like showing them heaven and putting them back in hell.” “He (Sheku) was desperate to get help. The Sierra Leone government hides behind the fact that any of this ever happened and amputees are treated as if they’re nobody. He was very depressed and suicidal,” said Mrs. Passeri.
Mrs. Passeri (who the kids have come to know as Aunt Nancy) looks upon the occasion as a mother seeing her child take the next big step in his life. “We’ll all be crying,’ she said. “We’re as proud of Sheku as we are of all of the kids (who have since been adopted and live in other parts of the country). They are family and have changed our lives forever giving us so much more than we could ever give them.”
Sheku doesn’t let his disabilities (painful prosthetics on his arms and one eye going completely blind) deter him although doing the simplest of chores can be the most frustrating for him every day. Through it all he has made lifelong friends while at St. John’s in Staten Island and credits Theresa Cantarella, University administrator and Director of Student Financial Services, Professor Ellen Bogel and Judge Ralph Porzio confidants that have been there to guide him on his educational path. And there are Mother figures like Laura Simms and Joan Sutton, and there are tutors like Sue Lamberti (a retired educator) and Patty Bedell (a retired psychologist) who have helped Sheku giving of their time and expertise to see him through his ups and downs.
On the horizon is a future book titled Waterside Stone that is waiting for a publisher which chronicles his life, but it will go far beyond his struggles in hopes of impressing upon people that, “fighting fire with fire is not the answer.” He looks forward to life in the real world one day after his studies are complete, and an opportunity to secure a steady job so that he can bring his two brothers and sister to America to live with him.
Before that can happen, he has plans to go to graduate school to earn a master’s degree in International Relations. With his first-hand knowledge of the plight in his homeland, legal studies background and doctoral studies, he can put his impressive skill set to good use as he embarks on working to rid conflict around the world.
“What it did to me (the conflict) has destroyed my life. I want to tell my story so that we can come together as one and put conflict aside all over the world,” said Sheku.
Dr. Passeri, his wife, Uncle Joe and Carmine DeSantis, those in the Staten Island community who have pitched in and those associated with the International Rotary Society all can take great pride in what Sheku will accomplish on Saturday on the Staten Island campus as he parades with more than 400 graduates for the 2010 Commencement Exercises. But few will ever be able to comprehend what he has endured in his young life of 24 years.
“What Sheku has endured is a testament to human perseverance. Teaching himself English, being highly educated and through it all he has had no animosity, has lived independently and has gotten on with his life,” said Dr. Passeri. “I equate what he has gone through to walking up a hill with a Volkswagen tied behind him. He has carried that added weight with him and has come through it to become a remarkable young man.”