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Pittsburgh’s Jewish community emboldened to continue helping refugees after shooting

"Our doors are open."

A mother and child place flowers at a memorial for victims of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded 6 at the Tree Of Life Synagogue on October 29, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Credit: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
A mother and child place flowers at a memorial for victims of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded 6 at the Tree Of Life Synagogue on October 29, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Credit: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Noor Haidary was just a few blocks away from Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday, when he heard police sirens from Temple Sinai, where he works as a custodian.

“I saw the police driving this way and that,” Haidary told ThinkProgress. He walked outside and watched as first responders made their way to the scene of the mass shooting that resulted in the deaths of 11 worshipers at the synagogue in the city’s predominantly Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood.

Haidary was shocked. A little over a year ago, in September 2017, he and his wife arrived in Pittsburgh as refugees from Mazar-i Sharif, Afghanistan. Their resettlement in the city would have been impossible had it not been for the guidance and support of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, particularly Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh (JFCS).

“I saw these scenes in Afghanistan,” Haidary said. “Why are they killing innocent people?”

Orthodox Jews gather to hold a prayer session Monday afternoon at the site of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded 6 at the Tree Of Life Synagogue on October 29, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Credit: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Orthodox Jews gather to hold a prayer session Monday afternoon at the site of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded 6 at the Tree Of Life Synagogue on October 29, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Credit: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

The alleged gunman, 46-year-old Robert Bowers, apparently took issue with the Jewish community’s efforts to support refugees, like Haidary. According to witnesses, Bowers, who is white, yelled “All Jews must die” upon entering the synagogue. In the hours before his attack, he posted on social media that he was “going in,” directing his ire toward HIAS, a Jewish non-profit organization that works with the State Department to help refugees get settled in the United States.

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“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” Bowers posted on the white nationalist social media site Gab prior to the attack. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

The comments were among many anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic posts Bowers had made in the past, including ones peddling far-right conspiracy theories that claimed Jews were responsible for aiding the caravan of migrants headed to the U.S.-Mexico border from Central America, as well as posts criticizing HIAS’s National Refugee Shabbat and blaming the organization and Jews for bringing “hostile invaders to dwell among us” and “bringing the Filthy evil Muslims into the Country!!”  

Over the years, HIAS has helped millions of refugees who were fleeing violence, war, or persecution, including Jews escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. Originally founded as an agency to aid Jews, HIAS evolved to help refugees from all over the world, expanding with 16 local partners in 11 states, including Pittsburgh’s JFCS, which has provided social services in the city for more than 80 years, and helped resettle thousands of refugees from over 60 countries for 40 years.

People pause in front of at a memorial for victims of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded 6 at the Tree Of Life Synagogue on October 29, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Credit: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
People pause in front of at a memorial for victims of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded 6 at the Tree Of Life Synagogue on October 29, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Credit: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

“Our doors are open,” Leslie Aizenman, JFCS director of refugee and immigrant services, told ThinkProgress, adding that the organization’s work is guided by Jewish values. “We are going to welcome whoever we get. It is a part of the value to heal the world, which is tikkun olam.”

”We feel honored and privileged to be in a position to help these individuals and their families fleeing persecution find safety here in the United States and build new lives in Pittsburgh,” JFCS president and CEO Jordan Golin said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress. “Our refugees are no different than our relatives — they want safety, peace, and a better life for their children. These values should unite us, not divide us.”

After the shooting, Aizenman said she reached out to refugee communities in Pittsburgh to ensure they felt safe.

“We really wanted to be there for them because it’s also an attack on what they stand for,” she said. “Most of what I’m getting [from the refugee community] is, ‘how can we help you?'”

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Since the shooting, countless people have launched online fundraisers to benefit HIAS. One hosted by Women’s March co-founder Linda Sarsour raised more than $40,000 at the time of publication.

President Donald Trump, who is visiting Pittsburgh Tuesday to pay his respects to the lives lost, denounced the shooting on Saturday, calling on the country to unite. But many in Pittsburgh’s Jewish community believe Trump’s anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric played a part in inciting the shooter to act. Trump recently slashed the number of refugees admitted to the country to a record low of 30,000 in 2019. He has also repeatedly disparaged refugees and immigrants, calling them “rapists” and “murderers,” and suggesting that they are criminals and terrorists.

HIAS has forged on despite this tension with the Trump administration. The organization has helped resettle nearly 4,000 refugees across the United States since Donald Trump became president. Pittsburgh’s JFCS has helped resettle 71 refugees this fiscal year, said Aizenman, adding that that number is “drastically reduced’ from previous years.

“A little over 230 [per year] is our high,” Aizenman told ThinkProgress. “We would like to see something like 85,000 [refugees] come to the country … We have the capacity to help. A lot of people see it as letting in so many people that they would take over. No, that’s not what it is.”

“Right now our community is in crisis and needs support, and we will continue to do so with all of our regular activities and with the help of our volunteers and partners,” Golin said.

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That means continuing to support refugees like Haidary. When he first arrived to Pittsburgh, the agency helped him and his wife find a home and jobs, took them to doctors appointments and grocery stores, introduced them to fellow refugees and friends in the city, and showed them around Pittsburgh.

“I’m really satisfied,” Haidary said, adding that the agency helped him and his wife adjust to life in Pittsburgh, after suffering years of harassment in Afghanistan, where he worked for a U.S. defense contractor in Kabul. After several years, he said, he and his colleagues began to receive frightening calls and notes from the Taliban, who threatened to kill them because of their work for an American company.

“That’s when I decided to leave,” he said.

The news of the shooting crushed Haidary, and countless other refugees, who had received support from the Jewish community.

“A gunman decided to murder our neighbors to express his hatred of our Jewish community and our refugee community,” Golin said, adding that refugees are “devastated by the thought that their arrival may have contributed to our suffering.”

“We came to live in a safe country,” Haidary said. “It was very hard. It was very sad.”