Dunia Sibomana came to the United States in 2015 as an eight-year-old from the Congo in need of rare facial reconstructive surgery at Stony Brook Children’s Hospital. Six years later, he is a New York State high school wrestling champion.
The 14-year-old eighth grader at Long Beach High School won the state title Feb. 26 at the MVP Arena in Albany, pinning top-seeded and previously unbeaten Ryan Ferrara at the 1:32 mark of the first round. The state championship followed his Nassau County title at the same weight, won on Feb. 13.
“I was so excited, more than ever in my life,” Sibomana told Newsday. “What a great moment for me, my coaches and my family. I did it.”
At age six, Sibomana survived an attack by chimpanzees while playing with his brother and cousin at Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The two other boys were killed; Sibomana suffered severe injuries to his lips and face, his right ear and facial muscles were destroyed, and the middle finger of his left hand was bitten off.
Rangers from the national park connected Sibomana with Stony Brook Children’s Hospital through renowned anthropologist Richard Leakey, chair of the Turkana Basin Institute. Leakey connected with his friend Alexander Dagum, executive vice chair of surgery and chief of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Stony Brook Medicine, who discussed Sibomana’s case with Leon Klempner, then an associate professor of dentistry at the Stony Brook University School of Dental Medicine and founder of the nonprofit Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, which identifies children in resource-poor countries who need facial or cranial surgeries. Dagum performed the surgeries at no charge.
Sibomana’s initial surgery lasted 12 hours and involved grafting tissue and muscle from his left forearm to recreate his lips. Sibomana has had 14 surgeries and will require more as he grows.
Dagum told Newsday that Sibomana’s injuries were rare and that his was a challenging case, but that he was not surprised to see his determined patient succeed. “He’s loved wrestling since grade school,” Dagum said. “I’m more than ecstatic for him. He’s dedicated and very smart. He’s such a driven kid and makes me proud every day, as he’s come such a long way.”
Sibomana lived with two host families before being taken in by Long Beach assistant wrestling coach Miguel Rodriguez, and eventually he and his wife Marissa adopted Sibomana, who became a permanent U.S. resident in 2019.