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Q & A: HIAS’s Hetfield speaks about the gratitude of L.A.’s Iranian Jewry

by Karmel Melamed

February 4, 2013 | 5:31 am

HIAS interim CEO and President Mark Hetfield

On January 28th L.A.’s Iranian Jewish community with the support of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation hosted a night of appreciation at UCLA’s Fowler Museum for four Jewish non-profits that have been critical to the resettlement of Iranian Jews to Southern California since their first arrival in 1979. One of the most important of those organizations was the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) that helped Iranian Jews and other religious minorities fleeing Iran to more easily obtain refugee resettlement in the U.S. This unique organization has saved the lives of millions of Jews, Christians Baha’is’ and Zoroastrians escaping the grips of Iran’s totalitarian radical Islamic regime.

I had the rare opportunity to recently chat with Mark Hetfield, the interim CEO and president of HIAS about his group’s long standing relationship with Iranian American Jewry in New York and Southern California. The following is a portion of my conversation with him…

HIAS has been aiding Iranian Jews and other religious minorities escaping Iran for more than three decades now. Your organization has for the most part kept a low profile when it comes these actions for political reasons and for the safety of those escaping Iran. Can you share why HIAS has embraced a move to be more open about what they’ve done for the Iranian Jewish community now with this recent community event?

Every year the Lautenberg Amendment, required to allow religious minorities to safely flee from Iran to religious freedom in the United States, expires.  For Congress to extend the program in recent years, HIAS has been forced to publicly advocate for Lautenberg extensions, though we would have preferred to maintain a much lower profile.


 

Can you provide an overall idea of the extent of support HIAS has offered with the issue of Iranian Jews and other religious minorities fleeing Iran as refugees over the years in Congress?

The HIAS office in Washington spends much of its time and resources advocating for the United States to keep the escape hatch open for Jews and other religious minorities seeking to flee Iran. Without these efforts, the program would have closed long ago.  And, of course, in Vienna the HIAS office makes sure that Iranian religious minorities receive refugee status to travel to the United States.   Thanks to HIAS’ efforts in Washington and Vienna, the program has overcome many obstacles, and enjoys the highest approval rate of any U.S. refugee program in the World. Finally, HIAS works with the State Department and the Jewish federations and family service agencies to ensure that Iranian Jewish refugees are placed in the communities where they have the strongest community ties.  We also have awarded hundreds of scholarships to Iranian Jewish refugees in the United States as well as Iranian olim in Israel.



What does it mean for HIAS and its supporters to receive this public acknowledgement of appreciation from L.A.’s Iranian Jewish community?

We at HIAS are very touched by the show of support from the Iranian Jewish community tonight.  Never before have so many Iranian Jews turned up to thank HIAS and our colleague agencies for our roles in bringing them to freedom and helping them start new lives.  I only wish that all of my HIAS colleagues in Vienna, New York and Washington could have been here to experience the event.  The immigration experience is unpleasant, and when Iranian Jews or any other refugees are experiencing it, they grumble and complain about it to HIAS, just as the Hebrews complained to Moses when they were escaping from Egypt. It is very moving to see that so many Iranian Jews understand today that we at HIAS were trying to help all of them move to a better place, physically and spiritually.  Tonight we see that HIAS and the Iranian Jewish community were successful in this historical endeavor together.  

 

 

You obviously have several Iranian Jews on your board and donors. How else would you like to see the larger Iranian American Jewish community become more involved with HIAS?

Yes, we are elated that Dr. Sharon Nazarian joined our board in 2012.  On the East Coast, Tali Farhadian Weinstein is also a very strong supporter.  Author Roya Hakakian has spoken about the importance of HIAS’ work, and members of Thirty Years After have frequently advocated on HIAS’ behalf.  Tonight, hundreds of Iranian Jews have demonstrated their support by showing up. However, given the extent of HIAS’ ongoing commitment to helping Iranian Jews, we hope that this support broadens and deepens for our fundraising and advocacy efforts.  HIAS can’t do its work alone, and most members of the community have not interacted with HIAS after they finish paying their interest-free flight loans to travel to the United States as refugees.  If every Iranian Jew whom HIAS helped gave HIAS just $18 per year, it would make a big difference, but we are not there yet.  $180 from each Iranian Jew would make a tremendous difference in our work.  I hope tonight’s event is a step in that direction.

 

For more information on HIAS visit their site here

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Karmel Melamed is an internationally-published freelance journalist based in Southern California.

Since 2000, Melamed has specialized in covering the growing influential...

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