Graduating students from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University wave flags during a graduation ceremony in New York, Wednesday, May 17, 2017. Credit: Seth Wenig | AP

When Warda Sahtout was helping children in Syria during the country’s bitter civil war, she asked them to draw their dreams, what they hoped to be when they grew up. Almost every child drew weapons, she said, and military uniforms and blood: They could only imagine being fighters.

She wasn’t sure what her own future would hold; she had a degree in economics but turned to working in the field to help because of the devastation around her. With daily worries about water, food, electricity and gas, it was hard to think far ahead. And the need was so intense and so overwhelming that she couldn’t see clearly how to have an impact.

A full scholarship to Columbia University changed that. She is studying for a master’s degree in economic political development, with a concentration on conflict resolution. She wants to work for the United Nations, to help children scarred by war. “I needed this time to be outside — to see the conflict from outside,” she said.

On Wednesday, Columbia announced a global effort to help people like Sahtout — refugees and students displaced by wars and natural disasters. The Columbia University Scholarship for Displaced Students, funded with a commitment of up to $6 million a year, is the the first of its kind in the world, university officials said.Up to 30 students at year who are admitted to any of the university’s undergraduate or graduate programs will have all of their education and living expenses covered.

There are more than 70 million people displaced, living as refugees or seeking asylum, according to the U.N., an historic figure that compelled the university to take action.

“The program sends a powerful message about the role that colleges and universities should be playing to help young people whose educations have been disrupted because they have been forced to flee violence and persecution in their home countries,” Columbia’s president Lee Bollinger, who led the initiative along with Safwan Masri, executive vice president of Columbia Global Centers, said in a written statement.

The university had been working with refugees in a variety of ways around the world, Masri said, and decided to take an active role in providing opportunities for outstanding students whose lives had been upended.

The recipients of a pilot program that preceded the global initiative include Sahtout and six other Syrian students, including one who said he was detained and tortured. Masri said he hopes their desire to give back might have a ripple effect in their communities. “Every drop in the ocean matters,” he said.

Sahtout lived in Douma, a city near Damascus where people have endured violence, chaos and reported chemical attack. She watched a bomb fall next to her house just after she stepped outside, one day. She has been displaced 11 times.

Her mother left school when she was about 12 years old, and her father had not many more years of education, but Sahtout persisted with college classes despite the danger, and sought scholarships for graduate work.

When she got to New York in August 2018 — her first time out of Syria, her first time traveling alone — she was frightened by loud noises of planes, of construction, of trucks.

After a few months, she came to realize, “I am in a safe place — I should not worry about this.”

She marveled at the city. “That’s really amazing for me, how people are from different backgrounds, different countries, and we are just living together peacefully.”

At Columbia, she has been able to hone her studies and her internships to determine how best to have an impact at home. In Syria she could have eventually continued her study of economics, she said, but not with the humanitarian focus that is driving her now.

She can look back now and see how traumatized she was in her first few months in the city. “Now I have more of a clear mind to think about my education, to think about what I want to do,” she said. She misses working in the field, getting hugged by children happy to see her again. But now she feels certain that when she goes back, she will have many more ways to help them.

There are so many things she has learned at Columbia, she said, not least this: “Now I know myself much better.”