Has “a beautiful tree with strong roots” ever captured your attention? If not, it’s because you haven’t met Banah Ghadbian, whose names mean exactly that. A scholar-activist, Ghadbian is the Spelman College Class of 2015 valedictorian who was a force to reckon with during her journey at the liberal arts institution.
The Presidential Scholar and fellow in the Social Justice and Mellon Mays program with a 3.98 GPA and Fayetteville, Arkansas, native has a testimony that will leave you in tears.
“My family is originally from Syria. I came to Spelman because I knew of its reputation of being a leader for women of color, women of African descent and of the African diaspora especially, to pursue issues related to social justice and its academic excellence. I had all these passions that I wanted to bring them to fruition at Spelman. I wanted an education that could reflect those complexities. I grew up in a place that was racially hostile where I was used to hearing things like my classmates calling me ‘dirty little Mexican.’ I wanted to be in a space where women of color were encouraged constantly and I thought it was so inspiring that this was a place where Black women could be nurtured,” she shares.
“My family was displaced for speaking out against a government that outlawed freedom of speech since 1963. The power of words and education mean a lot to our community. We are systematically punished by the government — for speaking out — with imprisonment, torture and death,” begins Ghadbian during her valedictorian speech at the 128th Spelman College Commencement. “Right before I came to Spelman, an uprising in Syria broke out and for the first time since my family left, the thought of liberation in our home country for my family became a possibility. Protesters flooded the streets demanding freedom and justice. They were met with live bullets from government forces. The summer before I came to Spelman, I decided to make a video in solidarity with the protesters of Syria and uploaded it to YouTube, while in my living room at my home in Arkansas. My brave mother decided to reach across the diaspora to raise money for Syrian refugees on the Turkish borders. We traveled their together joining other women activists and gathered underwear and socks for refugee children. I met Syrian refugees and activists who witnessed unspeakable violence. When we noticed suspicious people following us and recording our conversation. It turns out regime agents from Syria recognized my face from my YouTube video.”
While chatting casually with smugglers, Ghadbian and her mother were told there were orders to kidnap them. They were wanted for 50 million Syria lira, the equivalent of $1 million. The “YouTube Girl” would be sent to the regime prison notorious for killing and torturing activists who dare speak out.
“With the threat of this ransom looming over us, we fled and joined Syrians elsewhere who were planning civil resistance. A few days later, I packed my bags, came to Atlanta, put on my white dress and wobbled in heels, to start my first semester at the illustrious Spelman College,” she reveals.
Fast forward four years later and Ghadbian, who was a double major in sociology and comparative women’s studies and who’s credited with bringing awareness to global women’s rights, the crises in Syria and Palestine, as well as sexual violence on campus, was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Alpha Lambda Delta honor societies. She established the Atlanta University Center Students for Justice in Palestine and co-founded the Women Against Violence Brigade, a student organization that advocates against discrimination.
Here, she shares a little more with rolling out.
What’s the secret to becoming a valedictorian when you have a hectic schedule that includes amplifying your social voice, being active and making good grades?
I have no idea. Honestly, it is so surreal. I think they feed each other and are not separate. My social justice activism and involvement with the women’s center and the social justice program created this bond between myself, my mentors, and my community of Spelman sisters. It was mutually reinforcing and I was encouraged. My professors made sure it was connected with things I was doing in the classroom.
Most memorable moment(s) at Spelman …
There are so many. Working with the women’s center has changed my life and also with the social justice program. It was a place where I found my home. The events we coordinated gave me life and sustained me. From the film screenings we organized Alice Walker’s Road to Apartheid documentary, the [annual] Toni Cade Bambara Scholar-Activism Collective Conference … they were milestones in my life.
Where to next?
In the summer, I will be going home to Arkansas and taking my brother to visit our family in Amman, Jordan, and teach English to Syrian refugees where my family works at a social services center. I will be attending the University of California at San Diego in the fall for their Ph.D. program in ethnic studies and I will get my master’s along the way.