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Canada, and the Afeyan family moved to Montreal. Afeyan’s own move to the U.S. was to pursue his education.
Although he grew up in Canada, Afeyan looked for ways to reconnect with his Armenian heritage. Armenia is like a startup, he says. The former Soviet republic struggles to grow its economy, a challenge compounded by a lack of resources. Afeyan has supported several economic development initiatives in Armenia. Two years ago, he also co-founded a humanitarian program, the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. The prize, named for Aurora Mardiganian, who witnessed the genocide and wrote a book about it, honors those who have overcome a challenge or made advances preserving human life and advancing humanitarian causes. Afeyan says his current humanitarian work is motivated by the events of the past.
Speaking during the Golden Door Award ceremony last Thursday, Afeyan referenced ongoing humanitarian crises throughout the world. He noted that Armenia, a country of 3 million people, has welcomed 20,000 Syrian refugees. He said that that support came from the realization that other people had helped Armenians, so now Armenians have the responsibility to help others. Afeyan added that individuals and companies can take a similar approach.
“We seem to be disrobing from all the good values that made America America,” Afeyan told the audience. “I’m here saying it’s our obligation to look back. We tell our kids, we tell our companies [to] always look forward. We’re living in a time where it also helps to look back and figure out what it is that made America what it is, and then try to bring some of the past to the present and the future.”
Because the life science industry has such a large presence in the Boston area, companies have a responsibility to immigrants and refugees, Afeyan says. Immigrants comprise a large part of the life science workforce, including the staffs of companies that Flagship has founded or invested in.
Afeyan says he had been asked in prior years to consider accepting the Golden Door Award, but he declined. This year, the increasingly hostile rhetoric directed toward immigrants changed his mind. He adds that he wanted to honor the legacy of Termeer, who in addition to being a past recipient of the award was also an IINE board member. Termeer, he says, always emphasized to people that companies had social responsibilities in addition to their corporate obligations. Afeyan pointed to the nonprofit Life Science Cares as one example of an effort to embrace the industry’s social responsibilities.
The Golden Door Award ceremony drew more than 700 people from around the Boston area. The event raised $850,000 that will support IINE’s work. Afeyan says he hopes that awareness of the issues facing immigrants and refugees will spark life science companies to continue that support.
“It’s time that we collectively act in this way because it’s a sense of responsibility—a sense of gratitude that you turn into action,” he says.