Refugee from Sudan Wins Swim Meets At Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC)

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Haftom Ambaye, who was born in a refugee camp in Sudan, enrolled last fall at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), where he has been a mainstay on the swim team, competing in 200- and 300-meter backstroke and 400-meter individual medley events. When he's not in class, he teaches children to swim, and hopes to be a physical therapist someday.

Swimming has become a central part of my life

Until he was 12, Haftom Ambaye had never even seen a swimming pool. Born in 1986 in a refugee camp in Sudan—where his family had relocated while civil war ravaged their home province of Humera, Ethiopia—he eventually moved to New York to live with the biological father he had never known. Flying unaccompanied, the 10-year-old landed in New York in August 1997, and started sixth grade at IS90 in Washington Heights the next day. “I spoke virtually no English and didn’t understand any of my classes for the first eight months,” he says. “Even so, it was fun.”

Ambaye’s English rapidly improved, and his burgeoning interest in dance led to a scholarship at the Alvin Ailey American Dance School summer camp. Meanwhile, another pursuit was capturing his imagination.

“My older brother, who had emigrated to the U.S. in 1993, was swimming regularly at the YMCA on 135th Street,” says Ambaye, who quickly learned to swim there, and earned a spot on Riverbank State Park’s C-level team, working his way up to the A team. “In one swim meet, I did the 200-meter backstroke in 1:58,” he says. “To this day I haven’t bested that time.”

Last fall, Ambaye enrolled in BMCC and joined the men’s swim team, where he has been a mainstay in the 200- and 100- meter backstrokes and the 400-meter individual medley. When he’s not in class or in the BMCC pool, he’s likely to be at Imagine Swimming, where he teaches children to swim.

“Swimming has become a central part of my life,” says Ambaye. After graduating from BMCC, he plans to go on to a senior college and major in physical therapy. Ultimately, he hopes to make good on his promise to his mother and return to Ethiopia to live and work. But there will always be swimming. “I really can’t get enough of it,” he says.

Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) enrolls over 22,000 degree-seeking and 10,000 Continuing Education students a year. The largest community college in The City University of New York (CUNY) system, BMCC has students from more than 155 countries, and awards associate degrees in over 27 fields.


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Lynn McGee
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