Refugee advocacy CEO to speak around town

By Aaron Greenberg
Special to the TJP

The president and CEO of HIAS, an international refugee advocacy agency, will be making several appearances in Dallas over the weekend, including at Shabbat services and a Dallas Holocaust Museum event.
Mark Hetfield joined HIAS when it was assisting Soviet Jews in 1989, and has played a key role in helping the organization expand its reach. Founded as the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society in 1881, HIAS now focuses on aiding and protecting refugees and asylum seekers of all faiths worldwide.
“Fortunately, today and for the 21st century, there have been very few Jews left in captivity or trapped behind an Iron Curtain,” Hetfield said. “For Jews, since 1948, the conversation has always been about refugee resettlement, Israel or somewhere else, but for other refugees that’s not an option.”
Frank Risch, a HIAS national board member who lives in Dallas, said he and his wife Helen felt it was important to bring Hetfield back to town to share his message.
“His embodiment of the commitment to help refugees not because they are Jewish, but because we are Jewish, has renewed HIAS’ place as one of the leading organizations in the American Jewish community,” Risch said.
He also noted that in his Yom Kippur sermon, Rabbi David Stern of Temple Emanu-El called Hetfield one of the great American Jewish leaders today.
While in town, Hetfield will take part in a refugee panel discussion at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 9, as part of the Holocaust Museum’s Civil Discourse series at Unity Church on Forest Lane.
Hetfield’s other stops will include Shabbat services at Congregation Anshai Torah Friday and Emanu-El Saturday; the Emanu-El Brotherhood breakfast Sunday; a talk with Levine Academy seventh- and eighth-graders Monday; and a business network breakfast at Park City Club Tuesday. Frank and Helen Risch will host a meeting with local Jewish leaders as well.

Teaming up with the Museum

Monday night’s event, the second in the Civil Discourse series, will focus on U.S. policies on refugees. Hetfield will join Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic Research for the Pew Research Center, and Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which calls for reducing the level of both legal and illegal immigration. Stella M. Chavez of KERA will serve as moderator.
Museum president and CEO Mary Pat Higgins came up with the idea of civil panel discussions on notable issues after the police shootings in 2016.
“As this country becomes increasingly polarized, the museum’s Civil Discourse program provides a safe place to discuss controversial topics and evoke critical thinking,” Higgins said in a statement.
The first panel focused on capital punishment, and the topic of the Dec. 12 panel will be the Electoral College.
The museum made a point of bringing in panelists who deal with the refugee topic daily, and Chavez has extensive experience covering immigration issues. Chavez will offer questions and topics to foster discussion, leaving time at the end for audience questions. It is expected to last about 90 minutes.
“We’re really a convener of this discussion, not trying to push it in one direction or another,” said the museum’s Paula Nourse.
“If we can provoke critical thinking in our audience, when they leave these events their conversation continues and they continue to practice some impartiality when listening to views of others.”

HIAS’ global outlook

Before becoming the head of HIAS in 2013, Hetfield worked on and off for the agency over a 25-year span, including serving as senior vice president of policy and programs. He played a key role in bringing HIAS to new locations, moving its headquarters from New York to Maryland so that it could be closer to the power players in Washington.
Hetfield said he is still working on his remarks and his specific messages will vary based on the audience. But he will likely address the changes in White House policy under the Trump administration, and the importance of Jews aiding others.
“We’ve been able to turn our attention to fulfill our Jewish values to help other refugees get resettled or be safe where they are,” Hetfield said.
HIAS’ presence and priorities include people fleeing “de facto gang states” in Central America; the refugee camps in Chad; asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan in Israel; Iranian religious minorities; displaced persons in Ukraine; and the camps in Greece filled with individuals from around the Middle East.
“We’re pretty much all over the globe,” Hetfield said.

Political challenges

“We make sure in many of the places where we work that refugees are recognized as refugees and allowed to work in their host countries and exercise their rights as asylum seekers under the refugee convention,” Hetfield said.
“We go to where they are,” he said, stressing that only about 1 percent of refugees go from their homeland or refugee camp to a permanent home in the United States or another country. “The rest have to be made safe where they are.”
In the instances where refugees do get settled here, HIAS greets them, helps provide a home, and facilitates schooling and employment.
That’s not always easy, especially when political forces push back.
“It used to be that people confused refugees and immigrants, but frankly they now confuse refugees and terrorists because the rhetoric has become so charged and politicized,” Hetfield said. “The focus on refugees is now security, which is so bizarre to us, because by definition they are fleeing terror, not bringing it.”

HIAS, Texas and Jewish response

Hetfield pointed out that Texas is at the center of much of the debate over refugees and immigration, and is the top resettlement state in the nation. He said the Jewish community has responded strongly to the recent changes, rallying to defend refugees. This includes a significant number of Texans.
“That summer of refugees flooding onto trains in Europe evoked bad memories from our own history,” Hetfield said. “From that time on, American Jews have been very engaged and interested in the work of HIAS.”
A HIAS-sponsored letter signed by over 2,000 rabbis in 48 states includes 18 from the Metroplex. Temple Shalom and Temple Emanu-El are among the five Texas congregations and nearly 400 nationally that are members of the HIAS Welcome Campaign.
The following events are open to the public. Note RSVPs where indicated:

  • Fri., Oct. 6: Shabbat evening service at Anshai Torah, 6:30 p.m.
  • Sat., Oct. 7: Shabbat morning service at Temple Emanu-El, Stern Chapel, 10:30 a.m.
  • Sun., Oct. 8: Temple Emanu-El Brotherhood breakfast, 10 a.m., Tobian Hall. RSVP at
  • Mon., Oct. 9: Dallas Holocaust Museum Civil Discourse Series panel: “U.S. Policies on Refugees from War Zones,” 6:30 p.m., Unity of Dallas Church, 6525 Forest Lane. No charge but register through Eventbrite
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