Growing up primarily in Palestine and Lebanon, Bassam Khawaja ’15 witnessed many of the effects of conflict, including military occupation and refugee crises. He came to Columbia Law School to study—and practice—human rights law, with the goal of addressing some of the hardships he saw firsthand.
Picking a path to pursue in life “was a very straightforward decision,” says Khawaja, whose father now works for the United Nations and whose mother is an artist. “Early exposure to these issues really shaped what I see as important.”
Two internships with a human rights organization during and after college convinced Khawaja that the law could be an effective way to make a difference in the field.
“I see the law as a powerful tool to respond to social justice issues,” he says.
Khawaja, who next year will be the Leonard H. Sandler Fellow at Human Rights Watch, is already helping others learn how to use the law as a tool. He recently traveled with Professor Sarah Knuckey to Myanmar to conduct human rights trainings for tutors, lecturers, and university professors in that country. Together they designed and taught a workshop on using the human rights law framework to identify and respond to human rights abuses. Khawaja also worked with Knuckey, who directs the Law School’s Human Rights Clinic, on a project aimed at improving transparency and accountability for U.S. drone strikes.
Participating in the clinic and having the opportunity to work with Knuckey “was the highlight of my experience at Columbia Law School,” Khawaja says. “The ability to engage at this level as a student—there’s really no parallel to that.”
Editor-in-chief of the Columbia Human Rights Law Review and a former co-president of Rightslink, Khawaja has been honored for superior academic achievement as a Harlan Fiske Stone Scholar. Last summer, through Social Justice Initiatives, he interned at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Beirut, working on a pilot project that would improve the process by which Syrians renew their residency with the Lebanese government. Khawaja also interned with Human Rights Watch in Beirut, working to document human rights violations in Lebanon and Syria. As a member of the Law School’s student-led Human Rights Working Group, he has been actively involved in making sure future human rights lawyers feel supported on campus.
“I care about Columbia Law School as a training ground for future human rights practitioners,” he says. “We need to grow the field. That starts here.”