Bwog talked with two recipients of Columbia’s Scholarship for Displaced Students, Sara Wahedi and Dr. Ajmal Sabawoon, about their experiences at Columbia, their fields of study, and their respective journeys to the University.

This past winter, Bwog had the opportunity to speak with two Afghan scholars studying at Columbia. The scholars are recipients of the Columbia University Scholarship for Displaced Students, which “aims to shift the global dialogue surrounding displaced persons from one that views them as a burden to one that recognizes them as vital contributors to global innovation and prosperity.” 

Bwog spoke with Sara Wahedi, a junior in the School of General Studies pursuing a major in Data Science with a concentration in Human Rights. Originally from Kabul, Afghanistan, Wahedi grew up in Canada as a refugee before returning to her home country. 

Bwog: I read an article about your tech startup—how does what you’re studying at Columbia impact your career and what you’re advocating for outside the University?

Sara Wahedi: I took a course last semester called Human Rights in the Urban Public Space, and my professor, Dr. Noah Chasin, completely changed everything for me in the way that I see urban spaces through the lens of human rights. At Columbia, I’ve been exploring both the technical and theoretical aspects of approaching human rights law and international law through the lens of technology. How can you record human rights violations in a more quantitative aspect, rather than rely heavily on qualitative norms? Visualizing and documenting human rights violations from a different perspective could be our answer to the ambiguity of human rights laws and processes. One way to do this is through data science; how do you visualize, and how do you collate all the human rights violations data? What is a human rights violation? What are human rights? Do you hold those who don’t really care about human rights accountable? How can your data be robust enough such that the International Criminal Court, for example, will want to use it?

My studies have also solidified the fact that I would love to maybe not pursue a law degree, but rather something involving international law at Columbia Law School. I don’t really care about being a lawyer or anything, but I just want to have that knowledge because a lot of my professors have told me I need to go a step further for what I want. This advice has also pushed me to work harder, just to get to somewhere like Columbia Law School. But it’s good to know that that’s what I want to do.

The community here also plays a role. I’ve had so many people in the Columbia community reach out to me—even students from different schools, like the Columbia Journalism School, have asked to have coffee or meet. So, just being here has just changed so much for me; having the school’s support of my work has just been so amazing. 

Bwog: How does your perspective of growing up in Afghanistan and coming as a refugee to Canada inform how you approach your human rights classes or cause you to have a different perspective from your classmates?

Wahedi: I think it shifted a lot of the assumptions that I had. I had a lot of assumptions about how the world sees human rights and how the world sees refugees. It was also great to hear from some of the best minds in human rights, like Dr. Chasin, who was very honest about where we need to grow, where we’ve failed, and how we can be better. It also helped to meet fellow students who are very passionate about these areas and to hear their ideas about human rights and the ways that we can approach solutions. It was so great to hear their thoughts, especially because the students that I was studying with had these fantastic backgrounds, and it was so interesting to hear their own stories about their own countries or the respective places they were coming from. But it’s also taught me the importance of knowing about your field, which is more than lived experience; a lived experience isn’t really the only thing you can rely on. You really need to have the knowledge and the technical experience if you really want to make sustainable change.

I think what’s so amazing about Columbia is that whatever we’re taught here, people do take it seriously. When we decide to take on a problem, and we want to build a solution, institutions like Columbia are taken very seriously. It is known that the value of the school or the education that we’re getting is world-class. So, that has helped a lot in the way that I approach human rights and the understanding of human rights. I know that I can apply this understanding in the future, through my work. Being at Columbia has really shifted my perspective in a lot of different ways and has brought some catharsis—in the sense of the refugee experience and also to challenge my imposter syndrome. I’m first-generation low-income and I have incessant, very debilitating imposter syndrome. And this semester has really helped me to, number one, validate my experience as a refugee, but also affirm that I belong here and that I can do well here. 

Bwog: You mentioned wanting to use what you learned at Columbia and apply that knowledge going forward. What do you hope to do with your Columbia degree? I know you mentioned possibly going to law school. What vision of change do you have?

Wahedi: I would like to keep a spotlight on what the Taliban is doing in Afghanistan. I don’t see them being thwarted out of power anytime soon. I see, unfortunately, that the Taliban will be a long-term problem. And what does that mean for me? It means that it’s imperative to keep an eye on what they’re doing regarding human rights violations and the inability for women and children to go to school or to work.  We must really understand what human rights violations are and what we can concretely record and visualize. One way to do this is through general understanding that… this is international law, this is a human rights violation. 

But we also need to take that and add in the tech aspect of like, “Okay, I have all of this data, but how can I visualize it for the general public to absorb?” Because I think when we talk about human rights violations, we think of it as something way above us that the general public can’t really absorb or understand. But I think that’s so wrong. We go through these cyclical periods of time where we have human rights violations and genocide. Right now, there’s a Hazara (a minority group in Afghanistan) genocide going on, happening after the Armenian Genocide was just finally recognized after a long time, after 60 to 70 years. Why is this happening? I think it’s because other than through the stories and through history classes, we very rarely get to visualize and understand like, “Oh my gosh, this is what’s happened. This is the gravity of the situation.” So for me, it’s visualizing and recording data regarding specific human rights violations, and using data science to visualize that, to make human rights violations something that you don’t have to just hear about, theoretically, but you can see: you can see it through graphs, you can see it through design, or you can see through a map. That’s something that everyone would look at and understand. 

Long story short, it’s keeping the Taliban accountable: keeping an eye on them and making sure that the things that happen during their regime aren’t ignored and aren’t hidden to ensure that we don’t keep having “Band-Aid” solutions because we just don’t see the problem. “Band-Aid” solutions allow us to say, “Okay, we’re done,” but I think that that’s also because we just don’t see a record of what’s been happening. And I think that could be a solution to accountability in the long term.

Bwog: Going back to what you talked about with regard to your experiences of being a first-generation student, what advice do you have for students who might similarly be struggling with imposter syndrome?

Wahedi: I haven’t, unfortunately, been able to go to the FLI (first-generation low-income) student meetings because of COVID-19, obviously. And sometimes Zoom just hasn’t really been able to fit in my schedule. But I have popped into a few of their meetings and one of their Zoom sessions, and just knowing that there’s a community is so relieving. I think it’s important to find people within the Columbia community that you can connect with and feel like they have a very similar life trajectory as you. I think that the FLI group is important. I think being in student groups with whatever group that you feel that connects best with you, whether it’s your ethnicity or whether it’s your culture, is so important.

So, that’s one way, finding your community based on your lived experience, but another is not being afraid to take a chance and join something that you maybe wouldn’t have had a chance to before, because Columbia provides different opportunities that most first-generation, low-income students would never have had before. So, there are a lot of groups, and a lot of sessions. There are a lot of things that you can go to now that you couldn’t have gone to before. So, sometimes it can be a little frightening because you feel like maybe you don’t have the wherewithal or the experience to understand what’s going on. But I think it’s important to just put yourself out there in little increments. And I have yet to find someone who has been either hurtful or disrespectful to me. Everyone has been super kind and supportive, and they want to have a conversation. I think, again, we work so hard to come to an institution like Columbia as an Ivy Leaguer. And you do realize that, within the student population, everyone is super passionate about being here. And they want to learn. They want to learn from you, and they want to talk to you. And you do see that value comes through the institution. I have never not met a really amazing, cool person at Columbia. Everyone has an amazing story. I think it’s just feeling comfortable: that you deserve to be here and to not be afraid to go and start a conversation with someone that maybe you would have never had a chance to meet before. And while you work and while you study, you’ll realize slowly that you deserve to be here because of the fact that you’re here. Because you have a passion, obviously, and you want to pursue something. 

And the University and the professors and your colleagues will always want you to succeed, whether it’s your Dean or your advisor. There’s no one here that wants you to fail. So if you create that little network, it really helps to deal with that imposter syndrome, to have people who might share that feeling of, “Oh, my God, I don’t feel like I belong here,” or “This sucks.” Most likely, those people you’re talking to will feel exactly the same. So, it’s important to have those kinds of connections, those friendships where you can be honest. But like I said, Columbia has been so welcoming. My favorite part has been that I feel like I belong because those around me have reminded me of that as well. 

Bwog also spoke with Dr. Ajmal Sabawoon. This fall, Dr. Sabawoon became the first Afghan Scholar to come to Columbia through the Scholarship for Displaced Students. Prior to joining the Mailman School of Public Health as an associate research scientist, Sabawoon was an associate professor of Epidemiology at Kabul University of Medical Science. In 2003, he worked to establish the National AIDS Control Program in Afghanistan, later working in HIV surveillance with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He left Afghanistan on August 29, 2021, two weeks after the Taliban took power.

Bwog: What was the process of leaving the country like for you?

Dr. Ajmal Sabawoon: I worked with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. So, Johns Hopkins University indeed applied for me on behalf of me for the T-2 Visa. When the Taliban took over, they just shared a list of names with the Kabul airport, which the United States military controlled while the rest of the country was taken over by the Taliban. So, Johns Hopkins shared the list of their employees with them to be evacuated from the country. On the 29th, we successfully entered the airport and went to Qatar. And then, after one night we spent in Qatar, we were transported to Germany. So for almost 45 days, we were in Germany, and after 45 days we came to the United States, and then we settled in a United States Army base in Virginia. The city’s name was Fort Lee. For almost one month we were there, and then I came to New York City.

Bwog: Was it ever in your plans to come study in the US?

Sabawoon: No, indeed, I didn’t have plans because the situation was so careful and even stressful and there was a threat to the life of me and my family. So, I preferred to just leave the country. Thanks to Johns Hopkins University, I was issued a support letter, and then, there also were other institutes and programs like Scholars At Risk. So, they also supported me a lot when I was first in Germany and I just became familiar with them. And then they also provided support to me and Columbia University. Indeed, this is also time to thank them because they provided me support based on the Scholars At Risk Program and Columbia University. 

Bwog: How would you describe your work here at Columbia?

Sabawoon: I joined the Department of Epidemiology. So indeed, my title is Associate Research Scientist. I expect to be doing some research, particularly since I have plenty of experience in psychology and HIV.  There are probably some other aspects of public health, maybe nutrition, maybe health promotion, or some other areas that I may extend in my contribution to the Department of Epidemiology.

Bwog: How would you say that your scholarship has been impacted by the move? Have you been able to continue the work that you were hoping to be doing?

Sabawoon: My experience shows that if someone has self-confidence, and they are honestly doing their job, it may pave the way to further success and career-building. So, this is my aim, and I want to just be very proactive within the Department of Epidemiology. And when they provide me this opportunity, to be a team member of the Department of Epidemiology, I will show the Department that I’m able to continue my work and to get more benefit from the scholarship.

Bwog: How long do you plan to stay at Columbia? Is this a permanent move? And if not, what do you hope your plans are for the future?

Sabawoon: What do you call it… a tough question. Anyway, I’m expecting to be here forever. My job also depends on some criteria, for example, fund availability, projects, and all the other things. Anyway, I expect to be here for at least five years, because my past history indicates that I usually spend five years in each institution that I join.

Bwog: Based on your experience, how would you say scholarship, more generally, has been affected in Afghanistan? And how is this scholarship continuing or not continuing for the people who weren’t able to leave?

Sabawoon: For Afghanistan, unfortunately, there is not like a systematic change of power to the next government. Each decade or two decades, we decide the system. This is something we learned from at least 40 years back; we had a system and then when the Soviet Union at that time, when they took over, the whole system was destroyed. And after that, almost nine years later, there were several wars and conflicts over there. And, in 2002, when the new government came, they established a new system. So unfortunately, in 2021, when the Taliban took over the country, the whole system again collapsed. So, this is the history of the country. And I think if we, for example, the United States government or some other institution, provide scholarships to the Afghan people, particularly for Afghan talent, they could go back to their homes. So, the scholarship may just have a very critical role in contributing to system-building and to the country. Anyway, the scholarship, to summarize, has a critical role in rebuilding the country.

Bwog: Finally, I’m curious about what your experience at Columbia was like: more personally, if you feel that Columbia is a global community, and in what ways we as a community can better support this type of scholarship going forward.

Sabawoon: I joined Columbia University and I received lots of messages from different colleagues. I didn’t know them, but I think they were really supportive and, probably, they will provide me with further opportunities to be here. And, I also like to work in a multicultural environment because my experience was solely in Afghanistan, except for one or two years that I was in Thailand doing my master’s programs. Columbia University is a… a multicultural, very peaceful environment. Though I have never been there physically, I feel that they are so supportive. Yesterday I attended a Zoom department meeting, so I saw a lot of people working, and they were so enthusiastic to see me and to be in the office. So, yeah, that’s a kind of feeling that I can recognize at Columbia University.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Columbia via Bwarchives