Please tell us about yourself
Suraj Girijashanker ’17 LL.M. was born in Brunei Darussalam, an absolute monarchy on the island of Borneo. Despite having spent the first 16 years of his life there, he was not eligible for citizenship due to the country’s nationality laws, which in practice discriminated on the grounds of ethnicity and religion. “There was no space for political dissent or an appreciation for basic human rights,” he says of his time there.
Girijashanker earned his first LL.M. degree from SOAS University of London, and he holds an LL.B. from the London School of Economics.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
Girijashanker’s experience in Brunei motivated him to study law at the London School of Economics, where he specialized in international human rights. Following graduation, he travelled to Australia, where his family had since migrated. But he did not find a more inclusive community. Instead, Girijashanker says he was troubled by the way he saw migrants and refugees treated.
Living in Brunei and Australia created seminal experiences for Girijashanker, galvanizing him to tackle refugee issues. He started his career working with Amnesty International and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), working to challenge the Australian government’s policy of mandatory detention of refugees.
Keen to apply his experience in this area internationally, Girijashanker took up roles with the Ministry of Justice in New Zealand and UNHCR offices in Egypt and Turkey. He also represented refugees held in detention in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.
Reflecting on his experience, Girijashanker says it was in Egypt, where he underwent what he describes as a “life-changing experience,” addressing the overwhelming challenges facing refugees and the limited opportunities for redress in an unstable political context. His role there was, through face-to-face interviews and research, to assess the claims of people seeking asylum. Most recently, he worked with Syrian refugees in Turkey.
Why did you choose to study at Columbia Law school?
Seeking to reflect on broader issues, Girijashanker decided to study at Columbia Law School, where he is eager to solidify his academic foundation on forced migration and international human rights. In particular, he would like to focus on the rights of refugees who are also sexual minorities.
“The LGBTI populations in several of the countries I worked in are actively targeted, but there is an added layer of risk if you are an LGBTI refugee,” Girijashanker says. “I want to advocate for legal change and more tolerance with regard to the LGBTI communities and specifically LGBTI refugees.”
How is your experience at Columbia?
Girijashanker has been awarded a David W. Leebron Human Rights Fellowship, which will further his postgraduate career in human rights law and advocacy. He will divide his time between Outright Action International in New York and the Arab Foundation for Freedoms and Equality in Beirut. Both organizations focus on LGBT-rights advocacy.
As a fellow, he will document best practices for promoting the rights of LGBT people in the Middle East and North Africa by conducting interviews with regional human rights defenders, lawyers, government officials, lawmakers, and advocates.