Gifted a new life through education

Amra Sabic-El-Rayess ’00 grew up amidst the violence of the Bosnian War. Here, she talks about that harrowing time, the impact a Brown scholarship made in her life, and the difference she plans to make in the lives of future students who have experienced violence.

Amra Sabic-El-Rayess grew up in Bihac, Bosnia and Herzegovina. After surviving ethnic cleansing under the Serbs’ military siege, she emigrated to the U.S. and earned an AB in Economics from Brown. Now an associate professor of practice at Columbia University’s Teachers College, she recently established a scholarship for Brown students, and spoke about her path to this decision:

"I spent years debating whether to share my story. For anyone who has lived through a tragedy, they know it is not an easy thing to do. But when entire communities are characterized as worthy of hatred and exclusion, old memories arise. They compel me to share my story with you.

"I was 'othered' in my old country as many are now othered in my new homeland. During the Bosnian genocide in 1990s, I was a teenager who couldn't grasp why my neighbors wanted to eradicate my family. How could they ever rationalize killing us? The answer was simple for them: we were Muslim.

“ After surviving more than 1,100 days under the military siege and constant barrage of bombs in my besieged hometown of Bihac, I was gifted a new life through education. ”

Amra Sabic-El-Rayess ’00

"Unlike many of my friends and relatives, I was not killed, or raped. After surviving more than 1,100 days under the military siege and constant barrage of bombs in my besieged hometown of Bihac, I was gifted a new life through education. My mathematics and physics awards landed me a scholarship in the United States. No longer did men in uniform present a threat. No longer was my label precluding me from a humane life every living being deserves.

"In 1996, I arrived to the land of free and brave with no bank account, broken English, and a label of being a Muslim, but I was welcomed. 'Ma'am, welcome to the United States of America. You are safe now' were the first English words I remember hearing upon my arrival. It was those words of a United States immigration official that revived my belief in humanity. He made me feel human again.

"But, it was Brown's decision to offer me a full scholarship that changed my life. While at Brown, I kept it to myself that I could only afford 10 meals a week. I was too proud to share this with my friends and classmates whose lives and experiences at the time were very different than mine. After four years of war in Bosnia, those 10 meals a week at an incredible academic institution were actually a blessing I could not have even imagined while living under the Serbs' siege and bombing of Bihac.

"Today, years later, I am paying it forward and ask you to consider doing the same. I have just joined the Brown Alumni Association's Board of Governors. This year, I will mentor Brown students through Women's Launch Pad Mentoring. I have also established the Sabic-El-Rayess Family Scholarship at Brown to support students who have (or whose respective families have) sought refuge from their homeland or who have experienced political upheaval, civil unrest, extreme violence, aggression, destruction, or civilian mortality. This endowed scholarship is the best money I ever spent, and it is my thank you to Brown for believing in me and for giving me a new life!"


Dr. Amra Sabic-El-Rayess, PhD is the author of the upcoming book that tells of her experience growing up during the Bosnian War, and the stray cat that saved her. Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess's wartime memoir is slated for publication in the fall of 2020 (Bloomsbury). She is also the Associate Professor of Practice in Education Policy and Social Analysis at Teachers College, Columbia University; the Project Director at the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies in Education; and faculty member at the Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian and Eastern European Studies. Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess is an interdisciplinary scholar who leverages economics, sociology, and political science to study education's links to social transformations. Dr. Sabic-El-Rayess obtained her PhD, her Masters of Philosophy in Comparative and International Education with Specialization in Economics, and her Masters in Economic and Political Development from Columbia University. She earned her BA in Economics from Brown University (Class of 2000).