HIAS Honors Jewish American Heritage Month, Highlights Impact of Former Refugees

HIAS is proud to participate in Jewish American Heritage Month, which recognizes more than 350 years of contributions to American culture. During this month, HIAS is celebrating people whose lives we have been fortunate to touch and who have chosen a path that embodies this year’s theme: “American Jews and ‘Tikkun Olam’: Healing the World.”

“While the vast majority of Americans are descended from immigrants, most Jewish-Americans are descendants of refugees who were among HIAS’ four million clients – individuals who fled persecution in their native country,” said Mark Hetfield, President and CEO of HIAS. “The tremendous cultural, academic, business and philanthropic contributions of the American Jewish community to the United States is a living testament to the fact that, if given the opportunity, refugees can be a boon, not a burden, to societies that welcome them.”

Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who was instrumental in securing Congressional support for a month of recognition, said, “Jewish American Heritage Month is a special occasion to celebrate the myriad accomplishments and contributions of Jewish Americans to the United States’ enduring role as an economic, political, military and cultural global leader.”

As President Barak Obama urged in his proclamation for this year’s American Jewish Heritage Month, let us honor the tremendous contributions of the Jewish people “as scientists and artists, as activists and entrepreneurs. And let all of us find inspiration in a story that speaks to the universal human experience, with all of its suffering and all of its salvation.”

There are millions of stories of former HIAS refugees who rose from tragedy to repair the world in dynamic and diverse ways. Here are just a few:

Yan Digilov fuels growth in the developing world through his organization, Firestarter, which transforms charitable giving into high impact development projects. Yan, who was born in Russia, is also the co-founder of Amir, an organization that teaches organic gardening to youths and young adults.

Nadia Kasvin and Tatyana Mindlina founded US Together to assist refugees, like themselves, who fled systemic persecution in the former Soviet Union. Today the organization employs former refugees and immigrants from 10 countries who annually assist 700 people who are resettled in Columbus, Cleveland, and Toledo, Ohio from countries as diverse as Bhutan, Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, and Iraq.

Matthew Forti, whose grandparents and father fled Egypt, fights poverty and hunger in East Africa as a director with the One Acre Fund. The organization assists 180,000 farming families double their profits through loans, training, and access to markets.

Dr. Linda Mills is a professor and the executive director of the Center on Violence and Recovery at NYU. Her research challenges existing programs for the treatment of domestic violence. Dr. Mills is also a filmmaker whose latest film, Of Many, tells the story of the extraordinary friendship between a rabbi and an imam. Dr. Mills' mother escaped Vienna, Austria in 1939.

Yevgeny Kutik, whose family emigrated to the U.S. at the age of 5 to escape religious persecution, is a critically acclaimed violinist whose most recent album, Music from the Suitcase, is comprised of music his parents packed when they fled Belarus. Celebrating this music brings it to an audience that might have otherwise been deprived of its beauty.

Tabby Davoodi was born in Iran shortly after the Revolution and is the Executive Director of 30 YEARS AFTER, an organization established to promote the participation of Iranian Jews in American civic life and their involvement in the greater American Jewish community.


HIAS is the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees—including women and children, and ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities—whose lives are in danger for being who they are. Guided by our values and history, HIAS helps refugees rebuild their lives in safety and advocates to ensure that all displaced people are treated with dignity.
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