Meridian High School already misses Prince Muragizi.
The lanky 18-year-old, who came to the Treasure Valley a decade ago via the Democratic Republic of Congo and a refugee camp in Burundi, will graduate on June 3. But this rite of passage is leaving some moist eyes among faculty and staff.
“He has the best heart,” said Nicole Huttash, the Meridian High nurse who has become a confidante for Muragizi.
In his 18 years, Muragizi has suffered the pain of war and had to learn to trust people, find the courage to overcome a handicap that will forever be a part of his life, and push to get back to Meridian High School so he could graduate with this friends.
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The soft-spoken senior, nicknamed “Fresh Prince” after the Will Smith TV show, didn’t have the kind of start to life that would necessarily give someone a big heart. But friends and staff say he is kind to everyone.
He was born in the Congo. At age 5, his mother, Judith Nabeza, fled to Burundi with Muragizi, his two brothers and an aunt to escape fighting. To no avail.
“The war was there when we got there,” Muragizi said.
He’s so kind to the people around here.
Nicole Huttash, Meridian High nurse
The refugee camp where they first lived in Burundi was attacked by militia, Nabeza said. A soldier tossed a grenade into the tent where Muragizi, his mother and others were staying. It shattered Muragizi’s leg and wounded his mother.
Muragizi remembers little but crawling from the tent and waking in a hospital.
Nabeza settled with her sons in Boise in 2007 as part of a refugee program. Shortly after, a part of Muragizi’s damaged leg had to be amputated. A pair of physical therapists worked for months helping him adjust to his prosthetic leg.
“We did a lot of treadmills,” Muragizi said.
He was so touched by their help that he decided he wants to do the same for other amputees. He’ll attend Lewis-Clark State College in the fall and major in kinesiology (the study of body mechanics and movement), with the goal of becoming a physical therapist.
“I have been through a lot,” he said. “The lady who helped me walk is the one who made me fall in love with being a physical therapist.”
The explosion and the experience left him with more than scars and a missing leg. “After the war happened, I stopped trusting people,” Muragizi said.
When he entered Meridian High School, Muragizi was standoffish. But he slowly got to know Huttash, who talked with him about classes, schoolwork and just how things were going.
“It took awhile for me to get comfortable with her,” Muragizi said. “She is always there for me.”
I am very active. I can’t be in a room for 30 minutes without doing something.
Prince Muragizi, Meridian High senior
And when he came in second in the race for homecoming king earlier this school year, he asked Huttash and Brad Muri, the physical education teacher, to escort him at the game.
It’s a ritual most often performed by parents, but his mother had moved to Missouri and was unable to attend. “It really meant a lot to me,” Huttash said.
BASKETBALL AND WRESTLING
A prosthetic leg has not restricted Muragizi’s life. In elementary school, he played basketball. At Meridian High, he took up wrestling. With the help of Muri, his wrestling coach, and volunteer guidance from Levi Jones, now the Boise State University assistant wrestling coach, Muragizi learned to take advantage of his unique body to wrestle competitively.
Without a leg, he said, he can move in lower on an opponent. And Jones helped him develop a vise-like grip to use on his opponent’s arm.
“You can do a lot of things with that,” Jones said. “Without it, the sport would have been so brutal.”
Muragizi soaked it all in.
“He was really accepting to everything,” Jones said. “He wasn’t afraid to work hard.”
When Cyndi Groth-Landis thinks of Muragizi, she thinks of determination. “It’s all about attitude,” said the vice principal for the senior class. “He has grit.”
He met his friend Shalea Brent in math class, and she sometimes helps him with homework.
“He’s pretty popular,” she said over burgers with Muragizi at a Wendy’s. “He’s pretty genuine.”
A RETURN TO MERIDIAN
Before his senior year at Meridian, his mother, who had married, moved Muragizi and his brothers to St. Louis. Muragizi didn’t like it. His new school had metal detectors, and his prosthetic leg set off the alarms every morning.
“They had to check me every time,” he said.
He is going to be the kid who comes back and does something.
Cyndi Groth-Landis, Meridian High vice principal, on Muragizi’s future
Morever, the requirements for school in St. Louis were different than in Meridian, and that would have tacked on another year of high school before graduation.
Muragizi missed his friends and wanted to graduate with his classmates at Meridian High, so he made plans to come back to Meridian in December and stay with the family of a good friend.
As an out-of-district student, he had to fill out paperwork to be accepted. The form asked his reason for the transfer.
He replied in two words: “I’m back.”