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Investing in people: Today's refugees, tomorrow's Phoenicians

Thunderbird School of Global Management honors World Refugee Day to raise global awareness of refugees, displaced people


ASU Professor Rangina Hamidi seated at a table with another woman. Hamidi writes on a piece of paper while the other woman points at it.

Rangina Hamidi in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2009. After paying the women who work for her to produce embroidered garments and housewares, Hamidi has the women acknowledge the payment with a thumbprint. Since most are illiterate, the thumbprint substitutes for a signature. Photo by Paula Lerner/Aurora Photos

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June 20, 2022

World Refugee Day is an international day designated by the United Nations to honor refugees around the globe, falling each year on June 20 and celebrating the strength and courage of those who have been forced to flee their home country to escape conflict or persecution.

The day is an occasion to build empathy and understanding for their plight and recognize refugees' resilience in rebuilding their lives.

This year, the Thunderbird School of Global Management is honoring World Refugee Day to raise global awareness of refugees and displaced people’s perseverance, and recognize how we can help protect their human rights. 

"For the Thunderbird community, and for me, this day is deeply personal," said Sanjeev Khagram, director general and dean of Thunderbird. "As a refugee of Idi Amin's Uganda, my life was transformed by having access to a world-class education."

In 1973, Khagram's family was expelled from Uganda under the brutal reign of its dictator, Idi Amin. Khagram lived in an International Rescue Committee camp in Italy before arriving in the United States as a stateless refugee. With the support of his family, sponsors, teachers and numerous benefactors, Khagram was able to attend Stanford for his bachelor's, master and doctoral degrees.

What is World Refugee Day?

On World Refugee Day, the international community pauses to recognize refugees, acknowledge their courage and honor their inspiring faculty for facing life's challenges with faith, gratitude and joy — attributes that often belie the backdrop of tragic circumstances from which they fled in search of safety and freedom.

Their customs, songs, dances, traditions, zeal for freedom and joyous spirits that enliven and enrich our communities are celebrated.

“We sometimes do not realize how interconnected we are,” said Mike Sullivan, president of The Welcome to America Project. “The only difference between us and a refugee is the circumstance. Something happened in their country, far outside of their control, that forced them to flee for safety. Something that did not happen to us, and we are in a position to help. We are all a part of the welcome."

“Funds, furnishing, your time and talents" are ways you can help, Sullivan said.

"Integration is interaction. You can also see a list of volunteer opportunities and current needs at wtap.org,” he added.

Thunderbird transforms Phoenix into a more inclusive city

In 2020, Thunderbird founded a multi-stakeholder partnership, fully endorsed by Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego. The main purpose for the partnership was to realize Phoenix’s global potential and frame the city as an up-and-coming global hub. Thunderbird turned its vision into a reality by convening global organizations such as Global Chamber, the State Refugee Resettlement Program, Phoenix Sister Cities, the Phoenix Committee on Foreign Relations, The Welcome to America Project and others. 

This transformative multi-stakeholder initiative called Phoenix Global Rising is committed to making Phoenix a cosmopolitan, innovative and inclusive vanguard for the 21st century.

Thunderbird School of Global Management is the convener of Phoenix Global Rising, and supports the inspirational leadership of Gallego by strategically focusing on six major collaborative action projects with leading global organizations based across the private, public and nonprofit sectors:

  1. Strengthening the global entrepreneurial ecosystem.
  2. Fostering international trade and investment.
  3. Achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
  4. Promoting the full inclusion of immigrants and refugees.
  5. Advancing urban innovation and a smart community with Sisters Cities worldwide.
  6. Enhancing tourism and hospitality.

Through Phoenix Global Rising, Thunderbird partners and supports greater collaboration and synergies among a growing number of organizations.

The State Resettlement Program, Education for Humanity and The Welcome to American Project are organizations that have taken the lead in helping refugees start or continue their higher education no matter where they are in the world.

Through these programs, projects and initiatives, Phoenix Global Rising partners with Thunderbird to meet refugees where they are to offer resources, support, tools and courses to help them pursue higher education in as conventional a mode as possible.

Belonging at Thunderbird

Rangina Hamidi has been a refugee three times in her life. Her family decided to flee Afghanistan in 1981, right after the Russian invasion. Hamidi's family resettled in Pakistan. But in 1988, extremist policies forbidding women and girls to attend school caused her family to flee again, this time to America.

Rangina returned to Afghanistan in 2003, becoming the first female education minister of Afghanistan in over 30 years. She raised her daughter there as she worked to rebuild a nation that she loved, hoping to increase educational opportunities for women. However, in August 2021, she was forced to flee again after the U.S. left Afghanistan and Kabul fell to the Taliban.

"In every situation, I did not have a choice," said Hamidi, a professor of practice at Thunderbird. 

She and her family have had to make very difficult decisions in leaving their homes for safer environments and a better future.

"No one values opportunities more than refugees. Refugees lose everything in the process of seeking refuge. When they have the opportunity to give back to the community that receives and welcomes them, they give back with honor, dedication and integrity," Hamidi said.

"Refugees do not take living and working in their new homes for granted and work very hard to prevent losing their adopted home. Refugees are an incredible asset for any organization looking for a dedicated workforce," she said. 

Less than 1% of refugees are resettled in a new country. Of that percentage, only 5% of refugee students ever gain access to an institution of higher learning, according to the Presidents' Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, a group of institutional leaders working to increase access to education for displaced students. 

Alenga Alokola, a Thunderbird graduate student, is currently the CEO of Mwangaza Wa Upendo, a nonprofit organization that empowers the refugee community in Arizona.

"I'm working on creating educational resources for new refugees to help them navigate the most common challenges faced when first arriving in the United States," Alokola said. "My passion is to empower the refugee community to discover and release their potential for a better world and for a better life." 

"Thunderbird is the most global and digital leadership and management academy in the world and has touched over 2 million learners in its renowned 75-year history," Khagram said. "At Thunderbird, our vision is a world of sustainable and equitable prosperity, and as part of Arizona State University – the No. 1 school for innovation seven years running – we measure success not by whom we exclude, but rather by whom we include."

If you are interested in learning more about refugees and ways that you can help, visit asuforrefugees.asu.edu and unrefugees.org. You can also see Thunderbird's partners' websites at Arizona Refugee Resettlement, Welcome to America, We Are All America, Arizona Immigrant and Refugee Services, International Rescue Committee and Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest.

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