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

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. 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 Download Full Image

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,” 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 and 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.

Dasi Danzig

Senior Media Relations Officer, Thunderbird School of Global Management


Riding mid-infrared waves

ASU researchers’ graphene-metal hybrid device improves optical modulation at mid-infrared electromagnetic wavelengths for communication and spectroscopy

June 20, 2022

Waves are more than what you see on your summer vacation to the beach. Many aspects of our lives are made possible due to a different kind of wave: electromagnetic waves, also called electromagnetic radiation.

We view the world through visible light wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum, ranging from 400 nanometers to 700 nanometers. Other segments of the spectrum — measured in meters based on the distance between the crests of oscillating waves — serve different purposes. For example, some wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum smaller than visible light are used in X-rays. Other segments of wavelengths larger than visible light are used for radio and microwave ovens. An image of a satellite in outer space with Earth in the background. Space-based communications from satellites could see improvements based on new research by Arizona State University Associate Professor Yu Yao and her team. Together they developed a new graphene-metal hybrid device that can achieve ultrafast optical modulation at mid-infrared wavelengths. These tiny devices can also improve spectroscopy, biomedical diagnostics, remote sensing and astronomical applications. Photo courtesy Pixabay Download Full Image

Advances in technology to make better use of the infrared radiation spectrum — or the electromagnetic waves that are just larger than visible light — hold the key to improving optical modulation, a process that uses light to transmit data through patterned pulses.

Yu Yao, an associate professor of electrical engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, and her research team at the ASU Center for Photonics Innovation have developed a graphene-metal hybrid material to achieve ultrafast optical modulation.

The work represents the world’s first demonstration of ultrafast optical modulation at mid-infrared wavelengths using the graphene-metal hybrid material. Results of the research, conducted with Fulton Schools graduate researchers Ali Basiri, Md Zubair Ebne Rafique, Jing Bai and Shinhyuk Choi, were recently published in Light: Science & Applications, a Nature journal.

“Our specific design targets light with a longer wavelength for which it is challenging to achieve optical modulation using conventional materials and devices,” Yao says. “We can achieve unprecedented, very strong modulation of an optical signal in a very short amount of time: one trillionth of a second.”

The group’s design will enable new or improved applications in satellite communications and ultrafast molecular spectroscopy to study chemicals and molecules and advance biomedical diagnostics, remote sensing and astronomical applications — for example, in research being conducted on-site on the moon or Mars.

Optical modulation and the electromagnetic spectrum

Optical modulation involves two laser beams of light called pulses: the pump pulse and the probe pulse. How these pulses are used depends on the application.

In communications applications of optical modulation, the pump pulse is a steady beam of light. The pump pulse gets modulated to emit a probe pulse, which carries the information that can be decoded back into data by a receiving device. For instance, fiber optic internet connections, which are among the fastest types of internet services, use optical modulation through glass or plastic fibers to transmit data.

Spectroscopy applications measure information about a substance based on how materials interact with different wavelengths. In these cases of optical modulation, the pump pulse excites, or vibrates, the molecules in a material, such as a new drug or another chemical. The pump pulse is then followed by the probe pulse, which passes through the material and relays information about it to a detector.

The wavelength from the pulses at which optimal modulation is achieved is also important because of how matter and electromagnetic radiation interact at various wavelengths.

The wavelength of visible light, for example, is easily blocked or scattered by dust and other particulates in outer space and is therefore ill-suited for long-distance communications applications of optical modulation. In the infrared spectrum, waves can travel farther with much less scattering, so scientists are working on achieving optical modulation at these wavelengths.

The mid-infrared spectrum Yao’s team is exploring has waves that range in size from about 6 micrometers to 20 micrometers, a measurement also called a micron (25,400 microns can fit in 1 inch). It is also the range at which many materials vibrate, so there are potentially many more materials that can be explored through spectroscopy. But first, the team would need to develop an effective mid-infrared optical modulation device

New material combination opens up the future of optical modulation

Yao’s research team created a device that produces and interacts with the probe pulse, using a unique combination of materials that enable optical modulation at larger wavelengths than what has ever been possible.

Previously, researchers have used silicon and other materials to create these kinds of devices. However, they are too bulky and absorb too much of the target electromagnetic waves to be effective at the larger infrared spectrum, beyond 5-micron or 6-micron wavelengths.

The team’s design incorporates an ultrathin, single-molecule layer of graphene with an artificially engineered metal to form the hybrid material that was used for the first time for ultrafast optical modulation.

“We identified materials that can interact with a broad wavelength wave, and graphene is one of them,” Yao says. “Graphene is very thin; fabrication is very easy, and we can do the fabrication and transfer the graphene onto anything. We understand that because it’s such a thin layer, the interaction with light is strong and can be enhanced.”

The light interaction is enhanced through the use of a tiny cavity in the graphene hybrid material device, which interacts with the engineered material to achieve a stronger optical modulation effect than other designs.

An illustration depicting the device developed by Arizona State University researchers that uses a new graphic-metal hybrid material to achieve ultrafast optical modulation.

An illustration of the device with the pump light (blue line) and incoming incident probe light (right red line). These lights are focused onto “nanoscale hot spot” gaps in the graphene layer (hexagons) between antennas (shown in gold) on the device. A modulated probe light (center red line) is the result of optical modulation. Figure courtesy Yu Yao

Applications near and far

The optical modulation at larger wavelengths that Yao’s device makes possible will allow signals to travel farther, enabling better long-distance communication between satellites in space, or even between satellites and Earth.

“Visible light can only go so far because it’s highly scattered by dust and everything else in space,” Yao says. “But with the longer (mid-infrared) wavelength, the scattering effect is much less and (the signals) can propagate much farther.”

This design will also improve efficiency in other applications, including remote sensing, which can use the mid-infrared spectrum pulses to determine the composition of distant objects, such as a plume of smoke.

The semiconductor industry can take advantage of Yao’s team’s tiny device to enable silicon technology to work for communications with satellites and vehicles in outer space. Due to their super compact size, devices like the one Yao’s team has demonstrated can be included directly on integrated circuits.

"To realize compact system solutions, it’s always desirable to develop optical modulators that can be directly integrated on silicon, and it is possible for our device,” Yao says.

The technology can also be used to characterize new materials and understand how they can be implemented to achieve advances in semiconductors.

Aiming for bigger and better

So far, Yao’s team has demonstrated a critical next step beyond 6-micron wavelengths, showing a strong optical modulation at 6 microns to 7 microns.

“We’re targeting even longer wavelengths because we know that 8 to 12 microns is a window that can pass through the atmosphere with the least scattering,” Yao says. “But we have to take it step by step.”

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering