In retrospect, Nishin Nathwani was a kid almost destined to work for the United Nations.
All of his grandparents are from Gujarat, India. Both of his parents, though, were born and raised in Uganda, and stayed until 1972, when Idi Amin expelled them for their South Asian ethnicity. His mother emigrated to England, then to Ontario, Canada, where Nathwani grew up. He holds dual British-Canadian citizenship, and his cultural upbringing spans four continents.
As a child, his dream job was to work at the U.N. "Though I barely understood how it operated," he says, "I was allured by a utopian vision of an international community driven by cooperation rather than competition—by respect for the dignity of every individual rather than by unrestrained self-interest."
As a son of refugees, Nathwani has always known that his privileges stem more from circumstance than merit. "In a counterfactual world," he says, "where my parents had not left Uganda, I am acutely aware that I could find myself at this very moment in a prison in Kampala because of my sexual orientation. In another time period, I could find myself persecuted for my political values, or denied opportunities for my ethnicity."
Knowing that what separates him from these grim alternatives is luck more than anything has heightened Nathwani's sensitivity to the plight of the underrepresented and marginalized. Today, Nathwani dedicates himself to amplifying their voices—as a consultant with, naturally, the U.N. He focuses mostly on helping lesbian, gay, and transgender refugees, who are persecuted around the world.
Late last year, Nathwani researched and wrote a 60-page report, "Protecting Persons With Diverse Sexual Orientations and Gender Identities," published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It assesses how well the office has been able to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex refugees from violence and discrimination.
He did all of this before graduating college. But doing things beyond what's expected of his age isn't anything new for Nathwani. At 17, he was a delegate to the World Economic Forum, where, he recalls, his youth "was both my advantage and my restraint." He got to talk to some of the world's most powerful people, and his fresh perspective launched some transformative conversations. "Still," he says, "I felt uncomfortable with the inherently undemocratic nature of the forum, sealed off from so many stakeholders whose futures were being discussed—and in some cases, determined—by the few."
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After that experience, Nathwani headed to Harvard University, where he's been showered with awards: He was named a John Harvard Scholar, won the Detur Book Prize Award, got offered a fellowship at Oxford University (he declined), and earned a David Rockefeller International Experience Grant. The Harvard Crimson named him among the class of 2015's 15 most interesting students.
Meanwhile, he wrote for the Harvard Political Review, presided over Harvard's Social Innovation Collaborative (a gig that required directing America's biggest undergraduate-run summit on social entrepreneurship), and worked as a French translator. His undergraduate thesis explored philosopher Theodor W. Adorno's ideas about how our concept of nature relates to the human tendency toward domination and violence.
Between his sophomore and junior years, he lived in Geneva to intern for the World Health Organization. He wrote speeches for, and co-authored papers with, the WHO's director for the prevention of non-communicable diseases.
Nathwani graduated from Harvard magna cum laude and now works for the UNHCR in Beirut, Lebanon. He supports programs that protect at-risk refugees, such as the elderly and disabled, queer refugees, and sexual violence survivors.
When asked what motivates his humanitarianism, Nathwani credits his sense of awe: "There is much more depth in the world than is apparent to a surface gaze, and this vastness can never be fully captured by any single gaze. Awe for me is seeing that I can't fully see."
This manifests in his work, he adds, as a sharp awareness that he won't ever be able to fully relate to others' experiences. "My sense of awe," he says, "pushes me to understand that I can never give voice to the plight of the misrepresented in my own terms—that the marginalized must be afforded greater space to speak on their own terms, and that we share a collective responsibility to ensure that such spaces pervade all avenues of public discourse."
To that end, his U.N. dream is alive and mostly well: "While encountering the complications of the intergovernmental world may have tinged my utopianism," he says, "I nonetheless share with my younger self a profound admiration for the world envisioned by the United Nations Charter."
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