Shabnam Fayyaz: From refugee to Columbia graduate

Growing up in a refugee community in Pakistan, Shabnam Fayyaz never dreamed that years later she would graduate from Columbia University.

April 26, 2023

Growing up in a refugee community in Pakistan, I never dreamed that years later I would graduate from Columbia University with a Master’s degree in Human Rights Studies in 2022.

Thanks to a Columbia University scholarship for displaced students, I was able to achieve this, fulfilling a dream that planted in me as a child but flowered only later in my life. I now work for the International Rescue Committee in New York City in the area of refugee resettlement and employment.

I was born in Afghanistan, spent the first nine years of my life in a refugee community in Pakistan, and then came to the U.S. to pursue my education.

Two months ago, I was excited to receive an invitation to join a group of other displaced student scholarship students to meet with Columbia University President Lee C. Bollinger in person, as well as with Wafaa El-Sadr, executive vice president for Columbia Global, and Melissa Begg, dean of the Columbia School of Social Work.

Wafaa El-Sadr, executive vice president for Columbia Global, and Melissa Begg, dean of the Columbia School of Social Work.

The invitation reminded me of how my fellow refugee students and I were always made to feel welcome and supported at Columbia.

On March 28, 12 of us – from Syria, Georgia, Ukraine, South Sudan, and more – gathered in a special meeting room in President Bollinger’s home. When he entered, I was immediately put at ease by his humble and calm demeanor. He introduced himself and expressed how grateful he was to be among us, looking at each of us in turn. Then each of the students introduced themselves. 

Group shot

As he listened to our stories, I felt he genuinely cared about our experiences. He told us how proud he was of our achievements. He said that refugee students at Columbia have unique experiences and perspectives and as a result other students benefit, because they learn so much from us. 

The students were invited to each ask one question of President Bollinger. When it was my turn, I asked, “What inspired you to launch this scholarship to specifically help refugee/displaced students?” He replied that many refugees have been resettled in New York over the decades and this is a state that has always welcomed them and given them the opportunity to grow and to realize their dreams.

He added that it made sense for Columbia, given its location in Manhattan, to launch a scholarship to help refugee students pursue an education.  Thinking about his response, I found myself hoping he realized what an impact the scholarship he created has had, and will continue to have, on the lives of refugees like myself.

His answer made me especially proud to be an alumna of Columbia. Meeting President Bollinger inspired me to continue to work hard to be a changemaker and a leader, working on behalf of refugees in the U.S. and around the world.