The images, unfortunately, have been all too common for far too long: people young and old, refugees whose lives have been turned upside down by forces beyond their control, fleeing their homes for safety. Watching it unfold can make someone feel helpless. But what can one person do to make a difference?
This is the question Mona Babury asked herself in August 2021 when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. From her home near New York, as she watched footage of Afghan refugees, the trauma was close to home: her husband, Farhad, is an Afghan refugee who moved to the United States when he was 5 . “In the 10 years that we have been married, I have never seen him so distraught and depressed watching the scenes on television. People are running for their lives, clinging to the wheels of the plane and risking their lives to evacuate. I watched and I just remember feeling so helpless,” she said.
In her work at Pfizer, where she is responsible for global diversity, equity and inclusion, a number of colleagues also have roots in Afghanistan, some are refugees. Questions raced through her head about how she could help: where could she donate? Should it accommodate a child? What could she do now to have an impact?
It was then that the idea took shape. She knew Pfizer had nearly 1,000 vacancies it was trying to fill. What if they hired refugees for some of these open roles?
In the weeks and months to come, Babury would see that with the right partners, the right team and the right intentions, anything is possible. Today his idea is an official program called the Pfizer Refugee Leadership Initiative. Its goal: to hire at least 100 refugees by the end of 2022 and mentor at least 150, 50 of whom identify as LGBTQ. By mid-April 2022, Pfizer had hired 40 people under the initiative and had expanded from the United States to Pfizer offices in Greece, Germany, Belgium and Italy, seeking to reach refugees from Ukraine and Afghanistan.
For Babury, the accent has given him and many of his colleagues a new sense of purpose and gratitude in their own lives. “There are a lot of tears and sleepless nights working on this program. It makes you appreciate everything we have – our safety, our homes, our families, our banks, our jobs, our educational institutions, our right to speak freely,” she says. “All those things that we sometimes take for granted.”
From idea to initiative
It’s one thing to come up with a good idea. It is quite another thing to submit it to the powers that be in a global organization and see it through. For Babury, just thinking about it was empowering, but was it so naïve? Was it even possible for such a large company to move fast enough to make a difference?
She shared the concept with her husband and was emboldened by his response. “He said, ‘Mona, that would be absolutely amazing,’ she recalls. Then she gave it to an Afghan colleague she mentors, senior information associate Negeena Niazi. She loved it too. So Babury mustered up the courage to email Pfizer’s executive vice president, director of people experience, Payal Sahni.
She couldn’t have found a warmer welcome, or a stronger lawyer. For Sahni, it was also personal. An Afghan refugee herself, Sahni’s family arrived in the United States when she was just 6 years old. Having worked at Pfizer for more than two decades, she knew deeply that Babury’s idea would be a way to offer hope to those in need. “This,” she thought, “will change lives.”
So Babury began looking for organizations to partner with outside of the company. She discovered The Tent Partnership for Refugees, a non-profit organization that works with businesses to hire and train refugees. It was the perfect fit, and Pfizer, alongside more than two dozen other major companies, joined the Tent Coalition for Afghan Refugees, pledging to support and create opportunity for refugees.
Shortly after, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, himself a naturalized Greek American immigrant, sent a company-wide email announcing the program as a formal initiative. When more than 300 employees volunteered to mentor refugees, Babury wept with joy as his idea became a reality. She was appointed head of Pfizer’s refugee leadership initiative and Niazi became its program manager.
Meanwhile, in August 2021, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched the Operation Allies Welcome program to help resettle Afghan refugees. In conjunction with Hiring Our Heroes, DHS invited Pfizer and other Tent Coalition companies to participate in job fairs and information sessions at military bases where Afghan refugees were temporarily living.
Throughout the fall and winter, Babury traveled there, with a team that included Niazi, who speaks Farsi and could act as a translator. They distributed flyers, notebooks and pens, and helped interested people register and apply for positions. They met people from all walks of life – civil servants, human rights activists, women’s rights activists, doctors, nurses, educators, actors, poets and musicians – and were brought to their knees by the escape stories of the refugees, their courage, their trauma. , and their need for jobs. Babury and the team could sense the urgency kicking in with follow-up communications. “We get emails from candidates saying, ‘I am able to work 14 hours a day. I will work weekends and holidays. I will work to make Pfizer proud,’” she said.
It wasn’t long before the team made its first hire: Mohammad Afzal Afzali, whom Babury had first met on LinkedIn and later spoken at a military base. He had been a chief of staff at a university and a translator at the US Embassy, and he had had to leave Afghanistan with his family at any time. Her story and skills resonated, and Pfizer offered her a job that matched her skills. It’s been months since he went into labor, but for Baby, the memory still haunts him. “When he said, ‘Mona now, we’re colleagues,’ that was one of the proudest moments of my career,” she said.
Afzali, who now lives in Texas with her family, says her new job has changed the course of her life, allowing her to pursue her dreams. “I found the purpose of my life in serving others and making them happy; likewise, Pfizer is focused on breakthroughs that change patients’ lives,” he says. “For me, working for Pfizer means bringing hope to millions of people.”
In December 2021, Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, announced it would house up to 100 threatened and displaced Afghan students and scholars. When Babury heard about these efforts through her network, she contacted the school and offered, along with Sahni, to meet with these students and share information about Pfizer’s summer internship program.
During an interview with the students in February 2022, Sahni shared her personal story as a refugee. Pfizer, she told them, had given her a life-changing opportunity. Not only did she get an internship, but the company had agreed to pay some of her college fees. At the time, it was a huge financial relief for his family, and they never forgot it. “To this day, my parents say, ‘Never leave Pfizer. It’s a great place to work,” says Sahni. As she celebrated her 25th anniversary with the company, she thought back to her early days, when the Pfizer team saw something in her they hadn’t seen before. “When they started believing in me, I started believing in myself,” she says.
Today, she is honored to be able to provide internship and employment opportunities to others and to serve as a role model. She knows that not only is it the right thing to do for businesses, according to a report by the Fiscal Policy Institute and the Tent Partnership for Refugees.1the refugee population has lower employee turnover and higher retention rates than other employees – it’s also just the right thing to do as a human being.
In April 2022, Bourla and 34 other CEOs launched the Welcome.US CEO Council, pledging more than $75 million to support refugee resettlement organizations and nonprofits and to welcome Afghans and Ukrainians coming to the United States. The Council partners with Tent Partnership for Refugees, which as of April 2022 had over 220 companies, to help organizations develop hiring, mentoring and training programs; Sahni and Babury have been appointed co-chairs of the Council’s Employment and Training Pillar.
“Having an internal champion like Mona is critical to the success of a refugee hiring initiative,” says Noni Rossini, Acting Executive Director at Tent. “Someone who is truly passionate about the cause, but also understands the business benefits of bringing in this talented and diverse workforce. We are excited to continue to expand this work and inspire even more companies to follow Pfizer’s example.
When Baby thinks of new and future recruits, she thinks of everything they’ve lost. And she believes a sense of community in the workplace may be among the good things they’ve found. “I hope they know these positions are not a handout. They deserve to be here. That we see what they can contribute and that at Pfizer we welcome their diverse perspectives and experiences,” she says. “My wish for them is that they succeed in their new life. May they have peace of mind knowing they are joining a workforce where they will be seen, heard and supported. I hope they feel a sense of community here.
Work has also changed her. It showed him how a seemingly simple idea can come to life and have a domino effect on many lives, both professionally and personally. “When I look back on this program, it will always be my life’s work. I’m not sure anything else can top the impact I’m honored to have through this role,” she says. “My 8-year-old son looks at me proudly and says, ‘My mum helps people and saves lives. Nothing can make me more proud.
1 Refugees as employees: good retention, strong recruitment. Fiscal Policy Institute and Tent Partnership for Refugees. Available at fiscalpolicy.org/refugees-as-employees-good-retention-strong-recruitment. Published May 2018. Accessed March 16, 2022.