Veteran ERG Spotlight: Stepping up to welcome Afghan refugees

By Andrew H Ahn, MD PhD, Vice President, Global Specialty R&D Headache and Pain and Executive Sponsor of the Asian Heritage ERG.

Having served three tours of service in Afghanistan and Iraq, answering the call to duty has been a part of Karthik Balasubramanian’s world. But in the midst of the US pullout from Afghanistan this year and the desperate exodus of thousands of Afghan refugees, many of whom served as interpreters and allies alongside Karthik and many other American soldiers, he stepped forward again. Karthik Balasubramanian, Ph.D is a Director in the Combination Products and Devices R&D Group in West Chester and Co-Lead of the Teva Veteran’s Employee Resource Group (ERG). He is also an active member of the Asian Heritage ERG. 

Following the news of the troubled US departure from Afghanistan, Karthik was concerned for the many Afghan natives with whom he worked and their families, and was dismayed that he could not do something more tangible to help. He noticed in his Malvern community Facebook page that a local group was mobilizing translators for the refugees streaming through the Philadelphia airport. He stepped forward to use his language skills in Pashto and Dari to help out, easing the way for refugee families as they made the abrupt and traumatic transition from life in Kabul to a new beginning in the West.

So how did an American son of Indian-born physicians come to this unlikely activity? Karthik attributes his facility and love of languages to his mother, whose training and travels brought her to be conversant in nine languages. Likewise, languages flowed naturally to Karthik, leading to his interest in Russian and Arabic while in college. 

Having graduated from Columbia in 2001 with an undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering, Karthik and everyone’s world soon took a fateful turn after the attacks of September 11. After experiencing these attacks – in his own back yard so to speak – he stepped forward to enlist in the US Army. After getting wind of his analytical training and natural gift for languages, the Army quickly bounced Karthik into Officer Candidate School, including classes to learn Pashto and Dari, where he later landed at the NSA in Fort Meade, MD. By 2002, he was deployed in Afghanistan as a counterintelligence officer, where he was analyzing data and speaking with and debriefing interpreters and allies. 

Karthik came to Teva after two additional tours, in Iraq (2003) and Afghanistan (2004), with a PhD at Drexel University in Biomedical Engineering, and having retired from active duty reserves at the rank of Major in 2013. 

In reflecting on his arising again to action, Karthik notes the deeply rewarding experiences he derives from serving as a translator for the refugee families, even with his rusty Pashto and Dari language skills. “With a simple greeting, these refugee families light up when they hear their own native language. For being suddenly swept away and dropped into a foreign world, it gives them just a little hope that things will be alright.”

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