FAIRFIELD — Akbal Niyonkuru sports a gray Fairfield University sweatshirt and brown khaki pants. His brightly dyed hair and smooth demeanor make him one of the many other thousands of students on campus.

And yet, every day, Niyonkuru asks himself: “Why me? Why am I here?”

The 20-year-old had lived in a United Nations refugee camp in Tanzania for 15 years, after being forced to leave his native country of Burundi in eastern Africa.

“The camp really became my home. The neighbors, the struggles ... it’s a lot of things,” Niyonkuru said.

Niyonkuru arrived to the United States with his mother and two younger brothers Sept. 10, 2015. The one thing he remembers about that day was desperately wanting to see his family’s new home in Bridgeport.

“They had told us about this beautiful building, and I didn’t care about where they put us. As long as I’m in that building, I don’t mind,” Niyonkuru said.

More Information

Akbal Niyonkuru will be traveling with other students to Abilene, Texas in March next year to help refugees settle in that state. If interested, you can help fund the trip by going to: webpay.fairfield.edu/C20733_ustores/web/classic/store_main.jsp?STOREID=75&SINGLESTORE=true

A Bassick High School graduate, Niyonkuru arrived essentially knowing no English as a sophomore. The few phrases he knew were out of necessity. The Burundi native had learned Swahili, Rwandan, Kirundi and French while at the camp in Tanzania, and his English improved substantially throughout high school. He credits his teachers for helping him learn the new language and admits he still has much to learn.

“When I started writing, I wrote a piece in broken English. I just put some words together. My English teacher helped me find the words and feel comfortable and that changed the way I viewed myself. It taught me that I was capable of doing this,” Niyonkuru said.

In his first semester at Fairfield University, Niyonkuru has enrolled at the Dolan School of Business and is learning Chinese.

Niyonkuru still remembers the day when he found out he received a full tuition to Fairfield University. Incredulous, he asked the financial aid office not once, but three, times if the letter was real.

When he showed his mother the cost of tuition at the school, she frowned and said maybe there could be other, more affordable options. When Niyonkuru told to her what the financial aid offer meant, it was an enormous relief.

Niyonkuru remains in touch with his friends and neighbors from his time at the camp that seems a world away. The former refugee views a college education as not only an opportunity, but a personal responsibility and duty.

“It’s one of my rules, I can’t forget the people,” he said. “If I succeed, they succeed. If I had the power, my dream would be to go back to the camp and bring books. It’s powerful, how much freedom you can get with knowledge of things.”

As Niyonkuru prepares for his last final exam — accounting — he ponders about whether or not his daily, personal question has changed or if he has found some sort of answer.

“There are people who are smarter than me, who are better than me,” he said. “And so I wonder, why me? I never expected anything to happen to me like this. I haven’t found answers. But I’m learning every day.”

humberto.juarez@hearstmediact.com