May 15, 2010
There are no words to describe the feeling a student has
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 this weekend (Saturday,
May 15, 2010) the day will be bittersweet 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 he and his family that led to the murder of his
mother Kumba and father Mankoro right before his eyes.
Sheku will receive 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 will not be lost on his adopted friends, care-givers and
fellow graduates who will be by his side to cheer him on, and Rev.
Donald J. Harrington, C.M., President of St. John’s University, who
will bear 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
Enter 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 and Nancy and
Dr. Andrew Passeri who were being honored with the President 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.”
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.
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 that
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 keep 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 who took the next steps 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
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 government there (in
Sierra Leone) 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 his 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
“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.”