Gac Filipaj fled the war-torn Balkans in the early 1990s, as the former nation of Yugoslavia broke apart amid horrifying carnage. He came to New York, where he found work as a busboy. Before long, the onetime law school student got a job as a janitor at Columbia University—and if you think he wound up in Morningside Heights by accident, you’re mistaken. He cleaned toilets and swept the floors by day so that he could attend classes for free at night or whenever possible.
On Sunday, Mr. Filipaj received his bachelor of arts degree in classics during Columbia’s commencement exercises. It took the 52-year-old immigrant more than 10 years to finish his studies, which required him to read some old texts in Latin and Greek.
Gac Filipaj witnessed terrible cruelty in his native land. In New York, he found a new life, as millions of other immigrants have. He also found a city and an institution willing to give him a chance to realize his dreams.
He told reporters that his favorite philosopher and writer is Seneca, the Roman statesman whose letters he studied at Columbia. “Difficulties strength the mind,” Seneca once wrote, “as labor does the body.”
Gac Filipaj survived great difficulty.
His mind and new city are stronger as a result.