June is Immigrant Heritage Month and an excellent time to showcase the diversity that is reflected through our workforce.
The diverse FEMA workforce is made of people from all different backgrounds, reflecting the wide range of cultures found throughout America. Join us this month as we spotlight employees who share their stories about what coming to the United States as an immigrant means to them.
As a child growing up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Gabriel Adler never imagined that his family would immigrate to the United States.
The son of a university professor and a kindergarten teacher, Gabriel was a fourth-generation Argentine, and his family had deep roots in his native country. But in the mid-1970s, Argentina experienced a military coup. Though they were not politically active, Gabriel’s parents were caught in the middle of what came to be known as the “Dirty War,” and received credible death threats. Gabriel remembers his mother telling him, when he was 10 years old, “pack a bag, we’re leaving the apartment in a few hours and we may not ever come back.”
Gabriel’s family stayed with relatives in Argentina while his father sought work abroad that would allow the family to leave the country. During that time, Gabriel could not attend school, but his mother taught him basic English. In early 1977, Gabriel’s family moved to California, where Gabriel’s father was offered a research position at University of California, San Diego. Ten years later, Gabriel became the first person in his family to become a U.S. citizen.
After college, Gabriel spent six years representing the U.S. Department of Commerce in international trade disputes around the world. Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, he went to the U.S. Senate to work on trade and homeland security issues. In those positions, Gabriel spent time working in countries with very different forms of government.
“Those experiences made me appreciate even more the freedoms that we often take for granted in the United States,” Gabriel recalls.
When Hurricane Maria decimated the island of Puerto Rico, FEMA reached out to other federal agencies for volunteers with experience in intergovernmental affairs and Spanish language skills to help communicate with mayors around the island.
At the time, Gabriel was working at NASA’s Office of Legislative Affairs, advocating for the U.S. space program. He knew he had the unique set of skills FEMA needed to help Puerto Rico recover, so he volunteered to help. He was sent to the island of Vieques, where he was the mayor’s principal interface with FEMA. He communicated needs as the island faced a prolonged water outage, the loss of its only hospital and many other problems.
“This was the most intense, exhausting and rewarding experience of my professional life, without question,” Gabriel says.
Two years after returning from his detail to Puerto Rico, Gabriel accepted a position as a Legislative Branch Chief in the Office of External Affairs at FEMA Headquarters – just months after FEMA had been tasked with helping lead the federal government’s COVID-19 response.
“Sometimes people ask me why I would leave a job at NASA to come to FEMA in the middle of an unprecedented pandemic – and I tell them I’ve not regretted my decision for a moment,” Gabriel says.
Gabriel thinks that Immigrant Heritage Month is a welcoming opportunity to reflect on his journey as an immigrant. He added, “A lot of people are surprised when they find out that I am an immigrant, but it’s an integral part of who I am, and why I came to work at FEMA.”
Stayed tuned as we continue to highlight other FEMA employees through the FEMA blog and our social media channels.