'Don't Let Your Past Hold You Down'

Georges Ndabashimiye, left, and Morris Sheriff escaped bloodshed in their homelands and now leave CUNY with honors.

They survived nearly unspeakable horrors: genocidal massacres in Rwanda, devastating war in Liberia, the shooting murders of family members, hiding and fleeing, fear and hunger.

But the remarkable stories of Georges Ndabashimiye and Morris Sheriff don't end with their escape from bloodshed in their African homelands. Pushed by parents and teachers, driven by dreams of making good and giving back, Ndabashimiye and Sheriff made it to America, enrolled at the University. Now they are moving on, with honors.

Ndabashimiye, 26, graduates City College summa cum laude with a B.S. in physics. He received his department's Ward Medal, for a graduating physics major with the highest GPA in physics and math courses, and the Bernard Hamermesh Scholarship, given to a physics major planning to study graduate-level experimental physics. Ndabashimiye's next stop: Stanford University's Ph.D. program in Applied Physics.

The son of teachers, Ndabashimiye grew up in the Rwandan village of Runyombyi. He plans to become an "entrepreneurial physicist," and to return to Rwanda someday to improve conditions there.

He was living in Rwanda in 1994 when a missile attack on the plane carrying the country's president unleashed 100 days of genocidal massacres among the Hutu and Tutsi tribes, killing between 800,000 and more than 1 million and shocking the world. Ndabashimiye, a Hutu, went into hiding with his family. They eventually fled to a refugee camp in Katana, Congo. But one morning in 1996, Congolese rebels invaded the camp and "started shooting," Ndamashimiye said. "My father and sister ran one way; me, my mother and the rest of the family ran another. A boy who saw it said my father and sister were captured a few days later and shot to death." His sister was 17.

Forced back to Rwanda, Ndabashimiye and his surviving family settled in Kigali, and he entered a vocational school. He earned the highest score on his country's national graduation exam and was nominated for a William J. Clinton Foundation scholarship, which brought him to CCNY.

At Borough of Manhattan Community College, Morris Sheriff has stood out for his own impressive academic achievements, confidence and efforts to reach out to fellow students. The accounting major has been admitted to George Washington University, where he plans to study economics and political science.

Just three years ago Sheriff was granted asylum here, after his native Liberia became engulfed in violence. "Homes were burning, shots were being fired, people were being murdered," Sheriff, now 25, said of the turmoil in Liberia. "One of my brothers was shot while searching for food; another brother was abducted by rebels. My father was shot by firing squad."

Sheriff escaped to Guinea with his mother and sisters, but was still a target of Liberian dictator Charles Taylor's regime due to his past community organizing. He managed to flee to the U.S. "My mother told me, 'My heart is broken to be separated from you, but you will find family in America'," said Sheriff, 25.

Sheriff earned his GED and was accepted to BMCC in 2005. He has been president of its accounting club and Evening Weekend Student Club, organizing trips and seminars—all while working two jobs. This year he was named a New Century Scholar, an award given to outstanding two-year college students who are members of the First All-USA Academic Team. Sheriff also has a girlfriend and a 1-year-old son.

"I want to inspire children who have come from war—whatever country—to realize a person who has suffered war, crime, violence can always be successful if they put their mind to it," Sheriff said. "Don't let your past hold you down."