Around 60 people gathered Wednesday to commemorate the life of Amadou Cisse one year after the 28-year-old chemistry graduate student was murdered near the intersection of East 61st Street and South Ellis Avenue. Cisse, a native of Senegal and an active member of the University’s Muslim community, was just three weeks shy of receiving his Ph.D. when he was gunned down during a failed robbery attempt in the early morning hours of November 19, 2007.
The murder was one in a string of violent assaults committed throughout Hyde Park over the course of several hours that night. Cisse’s was the first murder of a U of C student in 30 years. The incident prompted a swift reaction from University administrators to revamp campus security measures, including increased police patrols, extended late-night shuttle service, and an e-mail crime alert system.
Four teenagers were arrested in connection with the crime, and each is awaiting trial on charges ranging from attempted armed robbery to first-degree murder.
On Wednesday, friends, acquaintances, and University officials who took to the lectern in Bond Chapel did not dwell on the somber details of that night but on the life of the man they invariably described as a passionate believer in human dignity, whose desire to return to Senegal to improve the country’s social conditions was reflected in his diligence and frugality as a student.
“He was very well trusted by his friends, very well liked by all the people who shared moments with him in his life,” said Mahmoud Ismail, professor in obstetrics and gynecology, during his opening remarks. “Only God knows what promises he had in him for humanity, how he would have affected the lives of the people.”
George Vasillev, president of the International House Residents’ Council, recalled discussions that Cisse often had while dining at I-House, where he lived for the duration of his six years at the University. Despite his gentle nature, he would become passionate when debating the prospects for social change in impoverished communities.
“He wouldn’t let anyone off the hook lightly…. He would argue from the position of goodness,” Vasillev said. “I remember arguing a point about…the limitations of public policy to bring the greatest good to the greatest number of people. He said, ‘No.’ He would have none of that.”
“He planned to take care of his family,” said Mumtaz Champsi, a representative of Hyde Park Muslim Families. “He wanted to go back and help his impoverished community.”
Several speakers, including Champsi, spoke of the degree to which Cisse chose to forgo even basic necessities in order to send remittances home. “He would wash his shirts in the bathtub at I-House so he could save money to send home to his family,” she said.
“He chose hardship to achieve the highest possible academic credentials,” Vasillev said. “He would not have cared for himself before he cared for others.”
Champsi spoke of the deeper tragedy of Cisse’s having come so close to realizing the opportunities that studying in the United States affords immigrants.
“Amadou was a very peaceful man, and he was also the son of a very brave and trusting mother,” she said. “She sent him to seek knowledge, to be the man she knew he could be…. She sent him to us; she loved him; she trained him well. He stood with integrity even when he was so far from her.”
Champsi lamented that Cisse had been taking advantage of the best that America had to offer when he fell victim to the crime that characterizes the worst aspects of American life.
“We as Americans were not able to protect him,” she said. “We must challenge this violence that took Amadou’s life—we need to question, why do we accept this violence?”
Cisse’s strong identification with his Muslim faith was one of the primary motivators in his efforts to effect social change, several of the speakers said.
“I think there’s no bigger honor than to remember he was a Muslim. He lived a Muslim and died a Muslim,” said Enal Hindi, a member of the Muslim Students Association. “His actions to help his family, help his country…are all actions that speak of a Muslim man.”
Alumnus Omer Mozaffer, a former member of the Muslim Students Association, appealed to attendees to use Cisse’s death to appreciate their own lives more fully. “I’m begging you,” he said.