Ahead of the Global Citizen Forum on December 12-13, we celebrate the accomplishments, innovations, and humanity of refugees.
The pandemic has exacerbated the inequality experienced by refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers around the world. Often fleeing violence, disasters or persecution, these vulnerable groups seldom have easy access to basic necessities, clean clothes, potable water, sanitary facilities, education or COVID-19 vaccinations, let alone a safe place to sleep at night.
Refugees may be temporarily hobbled by instability, but they bring with them wide-ranging life experiences, stories, and professional skills. From engineers and teachers, fathers, mothers, athletes, environmentalists, designers, and inventors – each had a life before circumstances forced them to leave home. And with support from the global community, they can find their footing and thrive once again.
To celebrate the innovation and vision of this continuously underestimated group, meet five refugees who have made great strides in their industry and made the world more beautiful in the process.
Noubar Afeyan, co-founder and chairman of Moderna
Born to Armenian parents in Beirut, Noubar Afeyan and his family fled Lebanon for Canada in 1975 during the country’s civil war. He later emigrated to the US, earning a PhD in biochemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He started his first biotechnology company in 1987, and by the age of 35, launched five more companies.
In 2009, Afeyan co-founded Moderna, which rose to global prominence in early 2020 for developing one of the most effective COVID-19 vaccines. To date, over 250 million people have been vaccinated globally with the Moderna vaccine, and the company aims to deliver 1 billion vaccine doses to low-income countries in 2022.
In total, Afeyan has helped build over 50 life science and technology startups, including biotech venture capital company Flagship Pioneering, which has helped develop over 100 scientific ventures and 500 patents worth around US$30 billion.
Yusra Mardini, Olympic swimmer
Olympic swimmer Yusra Mardini, who will appear on the “Refugees Welcome” panel discussion on day one of the Global Citizen Forum, was appointed the youngest ever Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR in April 2017 at just 19 years old.
Two years earlier in 2015, Mardini had fled her native Syria with her sister, Sara, after their house was destroyed. In Turkey, they boarded a small dinghy full of refugees bound for Greece. But during the passage, the engine failed, and the boat began to sink. Mardini – along with her sister and two others – jumped into the freezing water and helped push the boat to the safe shores of Greece – a harrowing journey that took three hours. The group continued on foot to Germany, where Mardini and her family now live.
When Mardini competed in the 100-meter freestyle and the 100-meter butterfly races as part of the Refugee Olympic Team at the 2016 Games, she not only showcased her incredible athleticism but became a voice for refugees. She has since advocated for the forcibly displaced through platforms including the World Economic Forum, Google Zeitgeist, and WE Day.
She penned a memoir, Butterfly: From Refugee to Olympian – My Story of Rescue, Hope and Triumph, in 2018 and just recently carried the flag of the IOC Refugee Olympic Team in the athletes’ parade in the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, where she competed once again.
James Madhier, CEO and founder of Rainmaker Enterprise
Originally from Tonj, South Sudan, James Madhier was born into the Second Sudanese Civil War and, as a young boy, witnessed the 1998 famine, which caused the death of 70,000 people. He fled to the Kakuma Refugee Camp in northern Kenya, where he invested his savings in a grinding mill to support his school fees, and eventually completed high school at the top of his class.
In 2014, he resettled in Canada and studied at the University of Toronto under the World University Service of Canada’s Refugee Sponsorship Program. Three years later, in 2017, he founded Rainmaker Enterprise and since then has been working to address the conditions that cause famines. For example, his company has installed a solar-powered irrigation system throughout South Sudan to provide a low-cost, efficient, and sustainable water supply year-round.
By improving the water supplies challenged by climate change, Rainmaker can combat hunger, poverty and reduce conflict over water resources in a long-term and sustainable way, driven by grassroots ownership within the Sudanese farming community.
Madhier says he wants to help ensure migration is always a choice and not a necessity. He is also pursuing a BA in Peace Conflict and Justice Studies at the University of Toronto to take his mission even farther.
Karina Hayat, president and co-founder of Prizm Media
A former refugee turned multimillion-dollar entrepreneur, Karina Hayat is the founder of Prizm Media, a digital media and technology firm that connects chronically ill consumers with the products and services needed to manage their conditions.
In 1991, an 11-year-old Hayat fled Guatemala with her family during the civil war. The political refugees resettled in Vancouver, Canada, and she later studied biology at Douglas College. In 2001, Hayat and her husband – who she met in school – launched Prizm from their basement.
Rooted in the couple’s vision to help suffering individuals find care, the company has gone from strength to strength. Prizm has connected over 20 million patients with hundreds of healthcare partners, as well as appeared on Canada’s Growth 500 list and the Deloitte 500.
The company donates 2.5% of its profits to social causes, including poverty alleviation, education, and interfaith dialogue. And in 2016, Hayat and her family sponsored a Syrian refugee family to give them a chance at what she calls the “Canadian dream” in Vancouver.
Hawa Hassan, CEO of Basbaas Somali Foods
Chef, cookbook author, and entrepreneur Hawa Hassan was born in Mogadishu, Somalia. At age six, Hassan and her family fled the ongoing civil war and found refuge in a camp in Kenya. They later attempted to resettle in Seattle, but when a seven-year-old Hassan arrived in the States, she was separated from her family. Her mother and siblings had encountered visa issues, and they eventually ended up in Norway. It would be 15 long years before she could see her family again.
After graduating from high school, Hassan began a 13-year stint as a fashion model, which enabled her to travel the world. Driven to make the most of her opportunities, in 2015, New York-based Hassan gave up modelling and founded Basbaas Somali Foods, a successful all-natural condiment company specializing in Somali hot sauces and chutneys.
Hassan calls upon her African roots and channels the power of food to bring people together in her various culinary ventures, including her latest cookery book, In Bibi’s Kitchen. Hassan now hosts a show on Food Network called Spice of Life and hosts a digital series called Hawa at Home, which shines a spotlight on traditional recipes from Africa.
This year’s Global Citizen Forum Annual Summit, which takes place from December 12-13 in Ras Al Khaimah, UAE, will celebrate refugees with a dedicated panel on the ongoing crisis. Join us to meet two remarkable former refugees and explore how the international community can make refugees feel more welcome.