By CHARLES ANZALONE
Published November 10, 2023
“Anything but conventional” is how a School of Engineering and Applied Sciences website described award-winning PhD student Emmanuel Nsengiyumva’s journey to UB.
“Emmanuel’s unique life story,” were the words a mentor used when Nsengiyumva received a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship. He called Nsengiyumva “an extraordinary individual who has overcome exceptional life challenges with courage and perseverance.”
Where to start?
Consider Dec. 12, 1997, when frenzied militia continuing the unspeakable Rwandan genocide entered Mudende refugee camp across the border from Nsengiyumva’s native Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Nsengiyumva and his family had come for protection from machete-wielding gangs determined to purge Rwanda and neighboring countries of a rival tribe. Hundreds of refugees filled primitive, college-like buildings. Thousands others, like Nsengiyumva’s family, lived in tents outside the buildings.
For months, the camp had been safe from the mass murdering in Rwanda and the Congo. That night, Rwanda military assigned to the camp was gone. Hundreds of Armed Forces of Rwanda (ex-FAR) and Interahamwe militia entered the camp, killing thousands of minority Tutsis refugees, or those with mixed ethnicity. The rest watched or tried to hide.
Nsengiyumva, his mother and two brothers ran from the tents toward the buildings to find refuge. He and his mother made it inside one. That night, Nsengiyumva hid in a small cabinet while the militias killed thousands still outside.
“Unforgivable,” Nsengiyumva says.
“My neighbors, everyone I knew was killed,” says Nsengiyumva, his even voice becoming a hiss. “Friends, Families. Cousins. Aunts. They were … all … killed.”
Nsengiyumva’s father and two other brothers made it inside a different building. The attackers blew the door down and entered with their machetes.
“My Dad was cut in the head,” Nsengiyumva says. “He fell down. They hit my brother in the head with a machete. He fell down. My other brother, everybody fell on him. My father and brothers survived because people fell on them.
“People at the bottom of the bodies, they survived. The people on top. Oh, they died. Everyone.”
Nsengiyumva (the “N” is silent: Sen-Giy-Yum-Va) remembers the morning after his night spent in the wooden cabinet expecting to be killed. He watched the survivors dig trenches, using wheelbarrows to move bodies, dropping them in trenches.
He was 9 years old.
Keep in mind Nsengiyumva’s life since has become a tale of recovery and perseverance, exceeding rational expectations. His most recent award is the prestigious NSF Mathematical and Physical Sciences Ascending Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (MPS-Ascend). He will receive $300,000 over three years to work with UB engineers to develop new materials that will be used to create membranes that separate carbon dioxide (CO2) from other gases — a technology that factories and power plants could potentially install to reduce the amount of carbon they release.
Such an advance could reduce carbon emissions worldwide, helping to slow the pace of global warming.
Before the Ascend fellowship, he received a SUNY PRODiG Fellowship promoting racial diversity.
His accomplishments and rebound in a few short years — he is only 34 — can seem too dramatic to believe.
Since those unspeakable days, unimaginable to those around him now, Nsengiyumva says he never gave up, never lost hope. He wants his life to be a testament to self-improvement, an inspiration to others facing brutality.
“I have dreamed about the Mudende massacre for years,” he says, “but if it does not kill you, it makes you strong.”
Immediately after the massacre, his family was transported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to the Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda. That camp became home for Nsengiyumva, his family and other Tutsi Congolese displaced by civil war in north Kivu, DRC. Nsengiyumva’s family lived in Gihembe from 1998 to 2010.
“That’s where I came from,” says Nsengiyumva. “That’s where my normal growing was.”
Spare details will have to suffice for now. He sat on cans during school. His blackboard was a piece of paper. Ask how many nights he slept without eating. His mother often went without so her children would have something to eat. The “expired” food was covered with ants, which the family ate with the rest.
“Ask me how many times I have seen people die from hunger,” he says. “That’s the life of seeing your loved ones, your friends die. It was God’s grace to see people survive.”
Nsengiyumva was 12 years old.
In the inevitable documentary about Nsengiyumva, this next part is essential, too.
Nsengiyumva’s family was among the first from Gihembe brought to Buffalo by Catholic Charities. His parents and 10 children stayed in an apartment on Breckenridge Avenue.
Nsengiyumva was 21.
Nsengiyumva is married to Nancy Nsengiyumva, a South Sudan woman he met in a Buffalo church. They have a daughter, Reina, 8, and a son, Kamanzi, 3. The family lives in Buffalo while Nsengiyumva studies in UB’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.
His colleagues and professors stand in line saluting his professional accomplishments in the competitive School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
“Out of his parents’ 10 children living in the United States, Emmanuel is the only one to complete a bachelor’s degree,” says Chong Cheng, the professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering identifying Nsengiyumva’s “unique life story.”
“He is a role model to his siblings and others with similar backgrounds or facing extraordinary challenges. Emmanuel is determined to change his life through education, help others improve their lives and make the world better.”
Paschalis Alexandridis, UB Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, says he is “very confident” of Nsengiyumva’s professional success.
“Emmanuel is enthusiastic about research and professional prospects,” Alexandridis says. “As a recent immigrant, Emmanuel is both motivated to do well and grateful for the opportunities afforded to him.”
Asked about his past, Nsengiyumva’s answer is usually the same.
“If you focus on the past, it can destroy you. The past is a lesson to do better and support others in need. I know my past was difficult, but the present and future hold greatness.
“The past never changes. But I learned how I can use the past to be the best I can. It doesn’t matter how much I suffer now. I suffered more in the past.”
Nsengiyumva dutifully recites the names of those who have helped him along the way: his former neighbor and retired Buffalo State College professor Norman Walker and the late Alexander Gilmour, an electrical engineering professor at UB, as well as a list of UB faculty members active in his research.
Each is part of Nsengiyumva’s journey.
“I know nothing is easy,” he says. “That’s what I always tell people. Use your experience to reach where you want to be. Your experience is a lesson, an education. It is strength for who I want to be.
“I will succeed because of my family and everyone at UB. I call it the ‘community.’ I will be forever thankful for everyone’s contribution to my success.”