From left, Shari Loessberg, IINE board member, honoree Dr. Noubar Afeyan, Jeff Thielman, president and CEO of IINE and Zoltan Csimma, chair of the IINE board

Immigrant and Refugee Aid Group Honors Afeyan

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By Alin K. Gregorian

Mirror-Spectator Staff

BOSTON — About 700 community, business and education leaders from around Massachusetts gathered on November 30 at the InterContinental Boston at the annual International Institute of New England (IINE) fundraiser, to honor Dr. Noubar Afeyan as he received the organization’s top award, the Golden Door.

Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Boston) with guest Purni Karki

The century-old organization aids immigrants and refugees as they arrive in the US, providing them with housing, English lessons and job training. They often meet the people they help at either Logan Airport or Manchester, NH’s airport and take them directly to their new residences.

The theme of the evening was not only charity (of which there was plenty, with the event raising more than $768,000) but combating the current insular tenor of the administration of President Donald Trump.

Those helped by the organization, at first glance, seemed worlds away from the well-heeled crowd of movers and shakers sipping cocktails and munching on tiny hors d’oeuvres. However, the honoree and many guests happened to be one-time immigrants and refugees themselves.

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The Golden Door Award is given annually by the IINE to a former immigrant or refugee who has become a true force in the US. And Afeyan has certainly become one in biotech, with recognition not only statewide, but globally. He is the founder, CEO and senior managing partner of Flagship Pioneering, a Cambridge-based incubator for life sciences companies. The firm’s Flagship VentureLabs is where its team of scientific entrepreneurs turn far-fetched ideas into reality.

Compassion in Intolerant Times

Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Boston) kicked off the evening by speaking before the formal portion of the program. He stressed that support for the IINE was especially important now. After congratulating Afeyan, he said that the honoree represented the best of history, traditions and values.

“Given the times we are in, we need to take a moment to understand our histories and stories,” Kennedy said. Immigrants are all around and they add to the mix, he said, noting that during the evening, he had met people from Sudan, Afghanistan, Congo, Syria and Iraq, among others. “It is pretty extraordinary,” he said. “I am cognizant of my own family ’s history,” he said, including his mother’s side, who fled religious intolerance in Europe to his father’s side who fled Ireland for economic reasons.

He continued with the theme of compassion, speaking about the Choctaw Nation whose members, forcibly moved by the US government to Oklahoma from their homes in the Southeast after a long march on the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, had sent much of their savings to the starving victims of the Potato Famine in Ireland in the 1840s.

He asked what it would mean when “society says no to those fleeing danger.” He also said that “polarization and tweets” are not what this country is about.

Shari Loessberg, a member of the IINE Board of Directors, read a letter from the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, L. Rafael Reif, in which he said he was “thrilled to hear of the selection and am deeply grateful for your services to MIT.”

Dr. Afeyan is a member of the Corporation (Board of Trustees) of MIT, from which he had received his PhD in biochemical engineering in 1987. He is a former senior lecturer at the university’s Sloan School of Management. He is currently a lecturer at Harvard Business School.

Helping Immigrants

IINE has three centers — Boston, Lowell and Nashua, NH. According to one staffer, the individual refugees are often resettled in Boston whereas families go to the other two locations because of housing costs in Boston.

IINE President and CEO Jeffrey Thielman, who at the start of the program greeted every single person walking into the hall, praised the evening’s honoree for all he has done for immigrants. He also gave the grim statistics that currently around the world there are 65 million displaced persons, with 22 million refugees.

“It is the greatest humanitarian crisis our generation,” Thielman said.

Thielman also gave some information about the IINE. He noted that last year the organization had helped 2,000 persons in New Hampshire and Massachusetts from 66 different countries.

He praised the evening’s honoree, saying “people need you to make a difference in the years to come.”

Another speaker, Rob Perez, founder and chair of Life Sciences Cares, said his organization “collectively aggregates resources and deploys them toward [battling] poverty in Boston.” Perez said that by helping provide “economic survivability” to the poor residents of Massachusetts, the biotech community was able to give back. He also announced establishing a partnership with IINE before saying that Afeyan is “one of the architects of our industry.”

 

Stelios Papadopoulos, chair Biogen

Another speaker was Stelios Papadopoulos, chair of the board of Biogen, who also chaired this year’s Golden Door Award.

A Greek immigrant himself, he stressed that often in reality there is little difference between refugees and immigrants once they land in their new country. They often suffer from similar problems, poverty and lack of familiarity with the new country. He also suggested that refugees and immigrants often become innovators. He noted that “21 percent of companies [in biotech] were started by immigrants or children of immigrants — a bunch of foreigners,” he joked.

The US, he said, has traditionally appreciated diversity, “though there is a temporary lapse in judgment and ineptitude” at this moment.

He spoke about meeting Afeyan 30 years ago while the latter was at MIT.

“Noubar is not smart; he is off the charts,” he said. “He has the uncanny ability to see the future as yesterday.”

Papadopoulos read a letter from Dr. Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the former president of Brown University. “I congratulate you and the International Institute of New England for their wisdom for their selection of Noubar,” he had written. “He knows that with wealth comes responsibility. He now is determined to give back. … To me he personifies the spirit of plurality.”

Honoring Afeyan

Dr. Noubar Afeyan

Previous winners of the Golden Door Award have included former Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Stephen Mugar, making Afeyan the 36th US citizen of foreign birth to receive the honor.

The Golden Door is derived from a quote at the foot of the Statute of Liberty which concludes with the lines “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Afeyan, when he finally came on stage to pick up his award, confessed that he was going to talk far longer than usual because he had so much to cover. He praised the IINE and added, “The life sciences community gathering to support them is very important in creating a lot of financial resources” for them. “We have to take a bigger and bigger responsibility” in the state.

Not only is he an immigrant, he said, but his many close friends who had attended the evening supporting him were also immigrants from the Middle East.

He gave some background on himself, from his birth and growing up in Lebanon, which he and his family fled because of the civil war, to landing as refugees in Montreal, Canada in 1975. Yet he went back further, detailing the story of his ancestors’ survival in the former Armenian lands in the Ottoman Empire during the Armenian Genocide. His father’s family came from Adabazar and his mother’s from Urfa. One grandfather eventually found his way to Bulgaria while another ended up in Lebanon.

“Anywhere we move, people have to worry. Calamity follows us,” he joked.

On a more serious note he continued, “All innovation is intellectual immigration. The feeling of utter fear and determination when we try to discover some new technology.”

That is why, he suggested, “immigrants aspire to fields of innovation.”

He spoke at length about the Armenian Genocide and how it had affected his family. His grandfather and a brother had gotten a second chance on the very last stop on the Baghdad-Berlin train, on which they were forced to travel, part of the throngs sent to die in the forced marches along the Deir Zor Desert. They were saved by a German officer at the very last moment because they spoke German. They, in turn, were able to save many Armenians that followed them on the train.

Reading an excerpt from Peter Balakian’s The Burning Tigris, he noted his debt of gratitude to the US for all its citizens had done to help the victims of the Armenian Genocide. In a hall “a couple of blocks away,” he said, at Faneuil Hall.

“It’s November 26, 1894, the Monday before Thanksgiving, a windy and clear evening, as men and women file into Faneuil Hall from all over Boston and from the suburbs of Cambridge, Watertown, Winchester, and as far out as Quincy and Andover. They have come to this public meeting place near the harbor to talk about the most pressing international human rights issue of the day,” the massacre of the Armenians by the Ottoman governmen, he read.

This, he said, led to the creation of the first US self-organized effort to help people outside the US. The group raised what is equal to $1 billion in today’s currency, before evolving into the Near East Foundation and going under the control of the US Congress.

Then he switched to Syria, where the civil war has led to the deaths of millions and the forcible evacuation of millions of others. Armenia has accepted more than 20,000 Syrian refugees, he said, “when they realized that 100 years ago, a whole lot of people took them.”

He dedicated a large portion of his acceptance speech to explaining his latest philanthropic endeavor in the Armenian world, the Aurora Prize for Humanity, which is “gratitude in action.”

In essence, the organization gifts one individual with a $100,000 award for their humanitarian actions and gives them the chance to pick, in turn, a group that has inspired them with their humanity and gift them up to $1 million and to keep the cycle of giving going.

According to the group’s website, the Aurora Prize parent group, the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative (AHI) was launched on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors. Those fortunate few who survived were saved by the courageous and heroic acts of institutions and individuals who intervened, at great risk. A century later, the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative seeks to express gratitude, share remarkable stories of survivors and their saviors, and celebrate the strength of the human spirit.

The Aurora Prize was founded jointly by Afeyan, Vartan Gregorian and Ruben Vardanyan.

Afeyan serves on the boards of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Armenian General Benevolent Union, the IDeA Foundation, the UWC Dilijan College in Armenia, and the Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology.

Giving Voice to Immigrants

Several immigrants and refugees were among the speakers. The program was kicked off by U-Meleni Mhalaba-Abedo and Rodgigue Kalambayi as part of Suitcase Stories. Mhalaba-Abedo been born in the US but eventually returned to Africa, witnessing the birth of modern Zimbabwe from Rhodesia and the dismantling of Apartheid in South Africa. Eventually she made her way back to Boston.

Kalambayi of Congo, spoke about the murder of his father and later he and his mother and numerous siblings made their way to Uganda where they lived for 11 years before making their way to the US. “I am so happy, going to school. I have a job for the first time in 11 years. I can smile again. I can dream again.”

Another speaker was Tamara Jasim, a refugee from Iraq, who spoke about the hard years they faced in Iraq before fleeing first to Northern Iraq, then Turkey and finally the US. Her husband, Ahmed, an electrical engineer, worked for the government and was therefore considered suspect. She, her husband and their then 2-year-old son were helped in resettlement in the US, where volunteers from IINE met them at Logan Airport and directly took them to their new furnished apartment in Lowell. Now, she said, her husband works as a technician and the couple have bought a home in Tyngsboro, where their children go to school.

With deep emotion, she thanked those gathered and in return, received thunderous applause.

To learn more about the International Institute, visit iine.org; for more about Aurora Prize visit auroraprize.com.

 

 

 

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