Updated: 12:33, August 28, 2018
Three years after helping rescue fellow interfaith activist Mohammed Al Samawi from war-torn Yemen, Justin Hefter realizes that daring escape was merely a first step in a long-term battle for freedom being waged around the world.
Hefter, who shared the stage with Al Samawi on Sunday night in San Francisco at the American Jewish Committee’s annual meeting, said “change occurs in ripple effects.”
“I think the biggest impact on me was recognizing that Mohammed’s escape from Yemen was not the end. It was just the beginning,” Hefter, a San Francisco tech entrepreneur, said before accepting the Lloyd Sankowich Award for Outstanding Leadership, presented annually by the Bay Area/S.F. chapter of AJC. “It would have been enough to just get Mohammed out of Yemen, but what has happened is this incredible movement.”
Al Samawi’s book about his harrowing escape, “The Fox Hunt: A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America,” and his many speaking events around the U.S. have inspired others to take similar actions.
Hefter, 29, is the co-founder and CEO of S.F.-based Bandura Games. The company creates mobile video games, including one in which players advance by developing cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. While he was a student at Stanford University, Hefter hosted a series of events that brought Jewish and Muslim students together.
Al Samawi grew up thinking of Jews and Christians as his enemies. As an adult he worked for nonprofits such as Oxfam and, in that capacity, attended interfaith gatherings in places such as Jordan and Bosnia. He also read the Bible, which opened his eyes to interfaith possibilities. His associations with non-Muslims made him a marked man in Yemen, his plight worsening during the proxy war in his homeland between Saudi Arabia and Iran that is still raging today.
In early 2015, Al Samawi found himself hiding in his apartment in Aden, running out of food, water and hope, when he sent out a plea on social media.
“I was thinking if al-Qaida or another extremist group would catch me, they would torture me first and then kill me. So I thought I would kill myself first,” he told about 150 audience members at the AJC event. “Then I found the one thing I could use, which is Facebook. I had this crazy idea. I started doing interfaith work on Facebook, so why shouldn’t I ask for help on Facebook?”
At the same time, Hefter was returning home from a skiing trip when he saw a message about a Yemeni needing help. He had met Al Samawi at an interfaith conference three weeks earlier in Jordan.
Then he found out the person needing help was Al Samawi.
Hefter, along with a fellow interfaith activist in New York and two others in Israel, began reaching out for help from organizations ranging from AJC to the United Nations and the U.S. State Department. They worked with anti-terrorism experts to develop an evacuation plan. They petitioned U.S. senators and government officials in India, which was evacuating its own citizens from Yemen.
“We’re on our laptops on our couches in San Francisco, New York and I felt like we were playing a video game, using Google maps to find Mohammed’s location on the ground in Yemen,” he said.
In March 2015, they worked with Al Samawi to concoct a plan that made the escape possible on a Yemeni fishing boat and an Indian naval vessel. After a 13-day odyssey during which he dodged bombs and bullets, Al Samawi crossed the Red Sea during Passover.
Once he made it to Djibouti, the African country opposite Yemen across the mouth of the Red Sea, Hefter and his colleagues helped Al Samawi find housing and get a U.S. tourist visa. Al Samawi’s first stop in the U.S. was San Francisco, where Hefter introduced him to American culture.
While his family remains trapped in Sana’a, Yemen’s largest city, Al Samawi was granted asylum in the U.S. and now lives in Miami. He works as the global ambassador for interfaith youth and leadership at the Washington-based African Middle Eastern Leadership Project, where Hefter serves on the board of directors.
Having grown up regarding Jews as infidels, Al Samawi now focuses on his interfaith work. In response to a question at the AJC event about how he now regards Jews, Al Samawi said he attends so many Shabbat dinners that his friends jokingly call him Moshe. He dreams of creating an Abrahamic House where Jews, Muslims and Christians can live and learn together.
His book is being made into a movie, he said, and has already been translated into several languages. He said he recently turned down an offer to translate it into Hebrew, saying he would only consent if it’s translated into Arabic at the same time.
“I’m so happy to be alive, and the amazing thing about the United States is you can say whatever you want and nobody will come to kill you,” he said. “[In Yemen] I was always trying to hide myself.”
Al Samawi was given a certificate of honor from San Francisco at the AJC meeting, and Hefter received his award from Mark Donig, a Bay Area attorney and human rights activist. Donig, who co-chaired the Sunday night event with East Bay real estate developer and philanthropist Moses Libitzky, received last year’s Sankowich award from the local chapter of AJC, a 112-year-old global Jewish organization that advocates for democracy, human rights and Israel.
Donig said the work of Hefter and Al Samawi is having a “butterfly effect of more and more people who want to get involved” in helping others. “Justin Hefter did not create a moment, he created a movement,” he added.
He then tried to present a plaque to Hefter, who was too busy hugging Al Samawi to notice he had left the stage without his award.