Projects for Peace: The Vision of Kathryn W. Davis

"My challenge to you is to bring about a mind-set of preparing for peace, instead of preparing for war."


Since 2011, the Syrian civil war has forced more than 5 million Syrians to flee their homes and their country. According to the United Nations, more than half of all Syrian refugees—roughly 2.5 million—are under the age of 18. Most have been out of school for months, if not years. They are on the verge of being a lost generation.

Kathryn Davis Fellow Ana-Maria Szilagyi is working on a plan to help them.

Ana-Maria moved to Italy with her mother when she was 12 years old. The Romanian economy was weak and unstable at the time, and Ana-Maria’s mother hoped her children would have more opportunities in Italy. But they arrived in Italy as undocumented immigrants, so it was imperative they avoid scrutiny from the authorities or risk being returned to Romania. “We lived an underground existence,” says Ana- Maria. “My mother ordered me not to speak Romanian in the streets. I know what it means to have neither rights nor recognition in the place where one has been fated to live.”

Ana-Maria enrolled in school and quickly learned Italian. The summer before her senior year in high school, she found a job as a hotel housekeeper in Brighton, England. It was an opportunity to earn money, travel, and learn English. After high school, she received a full scholarship to enroll in a dual-degree program at Science Po Paris and Columbia University. In 2012, Ana-Maria moved to Paris and began college. Two years later, she moved to New York City to begin classes at Columbia.

In the course of six years, Ana-Maria had lived in four countries and learned three new languages. She had encountered discrimination, worked low-paying jobs to help cover her expenses, and struggled to adapt to new cultures. Far from her home in Romania, she often felt like a refugee. But through it all, one thing kept her focused and determined: her education.

"By combining practical leadership skills with intellectual clarity, I aim to help Europe and its refugees achieve the best possible reconciliation of their colliding destinies." 

“I knew that my education had made a huge, huge difference in my life,” says Ana-Maria. “I didn’t have many things, but having a place in good schools always allowed me to do well in new and different environments.”

A summer job teaching young Syrian refugees at a school in Ankara, Turkey, convinced Ana-Maria that she wanted to work with children and with women. “I want to help children who live in a place that makes it difficult for them to focus on their educations, because of the kind of problems they have to deal with in their everyday lives. I understand that,” she explains. “And I also want to help women like my mother, who are living in a society that is not their own, trying to give their children every chance for success.”

Ana-Maria is only 24 years old. And yet she’s already developing a plan to create a nongovernmental organization that advocates for refugees, disseminates practical ideas for receiving them, and ensures the education of refugee children. She wants to establish her NGO in Germany, a country with a strong economy and a political willingness to accept refugees and integrate them into their society. More than 1 million refugees have been taken in by Germany in the last three years. “By combining practical leadership skills with intellectual clarity, I aim to help Europe and its refugees achieve the best possible reconciliation of their colliding destinies,” she says.

To make her plan a reality, Ana-Maria needs to learn German. And so she came to Middlebury in 2017 to study at the German School—and learn her sixth language. “The first two or three weeks were very hard,” says Ana-Maria about her Language Schools experience. “But when you know you’re doing something because there is a higher purpose to it, that always makes it easier.”