Courageous: Dunia Sibomana's harrowing and inspiring journey to become a high school wrestling champ
Dunia Sibomana, an eighth-grader from Long Beach, stood in the middle of the wrestling mat, his hand raised in victory, as a raucous crowd cheered for him.
The final seconds had ticked off the clock, and the 14-year-old had claimed the 102-pound county title at the high school wrestling championships on Feb. 13 at Nassau Community College in Garden City.
"The crowd was so loud," Sibomana said. "I put so much energy and hard work into being there — no way was I losing. I wanted it bad."
It is that drive and determination that has carried Sibomana on an improbable journey and through unthinkable tragedy.
Eight years ago, Sibomana, then 6, and two family members were attacked by chimpanzees while playing in the jungle of Virunga National Park, a vast animal preserve in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Central Africa. His brother and cousin were killed.
Sibomana survived but suffered horrific, disfiguring injuries to his lips and face. His right ear and facial muscles were gone, and the middle finger on his left hand was bitten off. The attack made it difficult for him to speak and swallow.
When he was 8, Sibomana arrived on Long Island for the first of 14 facial reconstruction surgeries because of Dr. Leon Klempner, a retired Port Jefferson orthodontist. Klempner is the founder of a nonprofit organization, Smile Rescue Fund for Kids, which identifies children in resource-poor countries who need facial or cranial surgeries. Dr. Alexander Dagum, executive vice chairman of surgery at Stony Brook University Hospital, agreed to perform the delicate surgeries without charge.
"I’m so blessed by all of the people that have come into my life and helped me," Sibomana told Newsday. "I have many friends, family, teammates, sports, and I love my life."
Sibomana, who started wrestling four years ago, is the only Long Island eighth-grader in Division I — the largest of the four classifications — to qualify for the New York state high school championships at MVP Arena in Albany on Friday and Saturday.
"I was crying [when he won] because I know where this journey started for him," Long Beach wrestling coach Ray Adams said. "It was like he was meant to be there. He was typical Dunia, just a beautiful soul on the big stage, being as humble as a champion could be. He was comfortable with the attention and celebrated with his arms lifted and a smile. I’m amazed at how far he’s come in his life."
A most challenging case
Sibomana’s first surgery took place on Jan. 11, 2016, at Stony Brook University Children’s Hospital. It lasted 12 hours and involved grafting tissue and muscle from his left forearm to recreate his lips.
"It’s rare to see the complete loss of the upper and lower lip and the sides of both cheeks," Dagum said. "He was certainly one of the more challenging cases. He lost a lot of complex tissue."
Dagum, who also is professor of orthopedic surgery and chief of plastic surgery, explained the immediate goals in Sibomana’s extensive treatment.
"The first goal was to reconstruct the upper and lower lip so he could properly eat, chew, drink and speak properly," he said. "All of those things were affected. What we did was a microvascular tissue transfer — like a free flap — from his left forearm to his face.
"Dr. Klempner started his foundation and provided health care for children in other countries who are in need," Dagum said. "He’s been quite amazing. We’ve both done a lot of volunteer work and seen the difficulties other kids face around the world. Stony Brook Hospital has covered all the costs of the surgeries and the doctors have all donated their time."
Dagum is one of Sibomana’s biggest fans, and he’s not surprised at his wrestling success.
"He’s loved wrestling since grade school," he 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."
Dagum is not concerned with potential injury to the reconstructed areas of Sibomana’s face.
"He wears headgear, and his reconstructions will not come apart wrestling," he said. "I’ve been working on reducing his scars, but we still have a long way to go. There will be more surgeries because his face and jaw are still growing. I have to let him be a boy and live his life. I don’t want to interrupt his life and I want to let him live."
Sibomana said he no longer struggles with eating or breathing.
"Life is good. I am very happy," he said. "I’ve made so many friends in Long Beach. I’m just a regular guy who wants to be with the guys. I know it’s a long road ahead with more surgeries, but I trust my doctors and I know they’ll do what’s best for me."
Forging family, wrestling ties
Since coming to Long Island in 2015, Sibomana has lived with three host families, the first in Hauppauge with caregiver Jennifer Crean, who became a volunteer host for children awaiting surgery as a result of working for Klempner.
A year later, when Crean was unable to continue caring for him, Sibomana moved to Brooklyn to live with the family of Jean Kim and Gretchen Chaix, who ran a nonprofit that supports the Virunga National Park and knew of Sibomana’s plight.
Returning to the Congo was not an option for Sibomana because he could not get the level of care he needed. The Chaix family set up a GoFundMe to help with costs.
Sibomana attended P.S. 29, where he learned to speak English and play soccer.
His second major surgery came on June 15, 2016. Chaix signed him up for the Skudin Surf Camp in Long Beach in August 2016 and there he met Miguel Rodriguez, the assistant wrestling coach for Long Beach High School.
"Cliff Skudin asked me to meet this super-active kid Dunia in the surf camp," Rodriguez said. "I had been mentoring and coaching Isaiah Bird, a boy born with no legs, and I brought him along. He and Dunia hit it off immediately."
Sibomana remembers when he first met Bird.
"I said to him, ‘What happened to your legs?’ And he said, ‘What happened to your face?’ We were friends right at that moment," Sibomana said.
Rodriguez said he asked his wife, Marissa, to meet Sibomana.
"We had just learned the devastating news that we couldn’t have children," Rodriguez said. "We got close, but God had other plans for our family. And here was Dunia, who needed us, and we needed him."
"I fell in love with him the second I met him," Marissa said. "Adopting a child is a gift."
Sibomana started spending his weekends with the Rodriguez family and officially moved in with them on July 1, 2017. He enrolled in Long Beach schools that summer and began the fourth grade at Lido Elementary.
Sibomana became a permanent U.S. resident on Oct. 19, 2019, and the Rodriguez family filed for a domestic adoption.
No place like home
While the long adoption process played out, the Rodriguez family learned Marissa was pregnant. She gave birth to Stella Rodriguez on July 5, 2021.
"When we were told I couldn’t conceive, I was heartbroken," Marissa said. "I felt incomplete, distraught. Our daughter is a miracle. And Dunia’s adoption would be a godsend."
Dunia’s adoption became official on Feb. 2.
"Dunia is the best big brother," Marissa said. "He feeds Stella, changes her diapers and gives her comfort when she starts to cry. When I need five minutes to close my eyes and relax, Dunia will take Stella and play with her. He’s a little bit of a baby hog."
Marissa said Dunia is helpful around the house because he was so independent in the Congo.
"He used to hunt jungle rats and pick wild berries for food," she said. "He was building fires and had to provide for himself. He was barefoot and didn’t have much clothing. His mom died of malaria when he was very young, and his dad died of unknown causes years later."
Adams said Sibomana wasn’t even the team’s best wrestler at 102 pounds when the season began, but he worked hard to improve and developed quickly. Sibomana finished the season 31-2 and at one point had a 21-match winning streak.
"He’s a combination of strength and explosiveness," Adams said. "He doesn’t get winded because he’s in phenomenal shape.
"Everyone loves this kid. It blows my mind when I think of what he went through in his homeland. And it’s even more incredible when I see him interacting with my family, his family, his teammates and in school. Everyone is drawn to Dunia. He brings such positivity into a room. He has a spark. He’s just a fantastic story of perseverance and beating the odds."
59th New York State High School Wrestling Championships
MVP Arena, Albany
559 wrestlers from all over the state compete for 26 titles
Follow live updates at Newsday/hssports