Shooting suspect posted online about HIAS, an agency known for work with refugees

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), known for their resettlement work in the U.S. and internationally, is one of the oldest refugee protection agencies in the country. The organization became part of the national conversation Saturday after the man suspected of shooting and killing 11 at a synagogue in Pittsburgh appeared to have referred to the group online.

In a post on the social network Gab, Robert Bowers, 46, linked to a directory of synagogues participating in a HIAS event, National Refugee Shabbat, saying he "appreciated" the list.

Founded in 1881 as a storefront in New York City's Lower East Side, the organization's objective began as a mission to help Eastern European Jews who were fleeing anti-Semitism and war.

"We have made a lot of progress in the past two years in getting attention to our work but yesterday, things took a turn," said Bill Swersey, a communications director for HIAS.

In 1980, HIAS became an official, voluntary agency for the State Department's Office of Refugee Resettlement State, joining eight other organizations, which include other religious-based groups like the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services and the Church World Service.

The U.S government refers immigration cases to HIAS, where they work with their 20 sites and affiliates across the country to help resettle refugees. Most of the people working on the ground to deploy resources are associated with Jewish family centers.

Nearly two decades ago they began to help non-Jewish immigrants from countries like the Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Syria — mainly resettling migrants from war-torn countries and providing them with housing, financial and job assistance.

"As our president likes to say, 'We used to help refugees because they were Jewish but now we help refugees because we're Jewish,'" said Swersey.

HIAS is also involved in immigration causes globally through their 10 international offices. The recent issues at the U.S.-Mexico border and oncoming migrant caravan has also become part of the forefront of their work.

"As far as the migrant caravan goes, we are actively advocating for asylum seekers," Swersey said.

HIAS held their National Refugee Shabbat last week from Oct. 19-20 in various locations across the country so that congregations could "deepen" their understanding of the current refugee crisis. Speakers like Ahed Festuk, a Syrian activist from Aleppo and Debora Barrios-Vasquez, who recently resettled in the U.S. after fleeing Guatemala, spoke to attendees.

Bowers referred to the event online and claimed that the group was working to bring people to the U.S. to do violence against others.

"If you look on social media, you will see people who are against our work in accepting immigrants and helping them but this is the first time we have ever seen it expressed in violence, at least towards us," Swersey said. "People have criticized us before but no one has ever taken it this far."

He said that the humanitarian aid group doesn't believe that Bowers called them out because of their Jewish roots but because they are assisting immigrants in finding refuge in the U.S.

"I think what [Bowers] was responding to is the idea of the Jewish community supporting other people coming to live here," Swersey said. "This is an elevation of the issue of anti-immigration and it's a concern to us and should be a concern to all Americans."