‘A Totally New World’

When a gunman opened fire at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October, everything changed for the head of a Silver Spring-based refugee resettlement agency

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Mark Hetfield is president of HIAS, the refugee resettlement agency that a gunman referenced on social media before a mass shooting. Photo by Michael Ventura.

 

On a Saturday morning in late October, Mark Hetfield’s life changed forever. He was attending a bar mitzvah in downtown Washington when the silenced cellphone in his chest pocket “kept buzzing and buzzing and buzzing.” He finally left the service but didn’t want to seem disrespectful. “I tried to hide so people wouldn’t see me using a cellphone outside the synagogue,” he says.

Hetfield is president of HIAS, the oldest refugee resettlement agency in the world, which is headquartered in Silver Spring. One of the calls was from CNN. An assault on a synagogue in Pittsburgh had killed 11 people, he was told, and the gunman had posted this message on social media: “HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

When he heard the news, he recalls, “It was just total disbelief, it was such a shock. I was thinking it couldn’t possibly be true. It doesn’t even make sense.” But it was true. And at that moment, Hetfield entered “a totally new world,” he told me one evening in November.

He pulled his wife out of the bar mitzvah and they went to a nearby coffee shop, where he continued to make calls and learn more details. The next few days were a blur. Hetfield and his colleagues did more than a hundred media interviews. He canceled a trip to Nairobi and flew instead to Pittsburgh to console survivors, then on to New York to meet with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres.

When I ask how the attack has altered his day-to-day life, the tension and trepidation threads through his voice: “It’s changed every waking minute and every sleeping minute. I have nightmares almost every night now and my wife often has to wake me up.” What kind of nightmares? “Pipe bombs. Gunmen. Just attacks. They seem very real.”

Has his health been affected, I ask. “No, but I credit adrenaline for that,” he replies. “I’m moving so fast and working so much and doing so many things in so many places that my body hasn’t had a chance to get sick.”

Hetfield and HIAS have both instituted drastic new security precautions, and while he cannot discuss details, he does tell me: “I’m constantly being targeted. You go to these hate sites and my picture’s there, my salary’s there, they say nasty things about me. I have to be much more aware of my surroundings, especially in this country. That’s the sad thing, I feel safer almost anywhere than in the U.S. right now.”

Donations to HIAS have poured in, including one anonymous check for a million dollars, but the new security expenses are straining the organization’s budget. “We have more support than ever before, people know who we are and what we’re doing now, but we have to do it differently,” he notes. “There are additional costs and precautions that now have to be taken into account.”

Originally called the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS was founded in New York in 1881 to serve the flood of Jewish refugees fleeing religious and political persecution in Eastern Europe—including my grandparents. Hetfield, 51, comes from a similar background. He grew up in Plainfield, New Jersey, where his immigrant forebears had settled, and majored in Soviet studies at Georgetown University.

In 1989, a year after graduation, he saw an ad in The New York Times and found a “dream job” with HIAS in Rome, helping Soviet Jews relocate around the world. He’s worked on and off for the society ever since, and after becoming president in 2013 he moved the headquarters from New York to this area. “Refugee policy is made here,” he explains. “If you want to have influence, you really need to be here.”

Rents downtown were too steep, however, and a friend suggested Silver Spring. “Silver Spring has Jews, it has refugees, it has immigrants, and it’s sort of up the street,” the friend said.

Hetfield and his wife, Miriam, who works on immigration issues for the federal government, raised their two children in Cabin John. And while his tranquil life has shattered, his sense of mission has not.

“In the Torah [the first five books of the Old Testament], God says no less than 36 times to love the stranger as yourself,” he says. “He does it, I believe, not because it’s the most important commandment, but because it’s the one that needs the most explanation. We need to be constantly reminded, because it’s too easy to mistreat or shut out somebody who’s an outsider, and that’s why it’s repeated so many times.”

By 2006, most Jews had left the Soviet Union and for the first time, non-Jews represented a majority of the organization’s clientele. They now comprise about 95 percent, and more than half are Muslims. As Hetfield is fond of saying, “We help them not because they are Jewish but because we are Jewish.”

Jews helping refugees have always been a natural target for nativists and anti-Semites, and as Hetfield notes, “We have been ignoring for too long that there are lots of hate sites out there that fixate on HIAS. But we just figured it was noise, and we tuned it out and went on with our work.”

They cannot ignore the haters any longer, and the Trump administration has made matters much worse, he says, inflaming fears and slamming doors. Only 22,491 refugees were admitted in the fiscal year that ended in September, the lowest total in 40 years and a fraction of President Obama’s annual goal of 110,000. “It’s a total abdication of American leadership,” Hetfield contends. “We can’t pressure other countries to protect refugees because we’re not doing it ourselves.”

“My gray hairs have definitely doubled” since Pittsburgh, Hetfield admits. But he is determined not to let down or give up. If you are a believer, and God tells you 36 times to “love the stranger,” you keep doing it.

 

Steve Roberts teaches journalism and politics at George Washington University. His memoir, My Fathers’ Houses, tells the story of his own family’s migration to America. Send ideas for future columns to sroberts@gwu.edu.

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