Daniel Wolf – PUBLICATION: Washington Jewish Week (DC)
SECTION: News & Features – DATE: April 14, 2010
I always had a keen sense of right and wrong; I couldn’t stand things that were unfair,” recalls D.C. attorney Daniel Wolf, who also remembers he was often teased as a kid because he was short, and “cocky” (“I always wanted to be the best”). He thus became “an underdog fan,” a role he sometimes took upon himself, such as when he played war games. “I was always the bad guy the Southerner in the Civil War, or the Germans!” he says with a laugh. His playing war games was part of a passion for history, which included his awareness of the Holocaust (his grandparents had escaped the Holocaust in Prague and Berlin) and his heritage as part of a people who’d persevered despite their persecution throughout history, says Wolf.
Later, majoring in history at Northwestern University, Wolf, 49, says he became aware of other, more recent genocides, “where the battles still had to be won — Vietnam, Cambodia, El Salvador . . .”
Earning his law degree from University of Michigan Law School in 1986, Wolf moved to D.C. to pursue a career in international policy and law, and took a position in the State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser. But Wolf found that “I couldn’t fit into a bureaucratic environment; I couldn’t do what I believed in,” and quit after two years to pursue his human rights and refugee interests. Later, working with the law firms of Hughes Hubbard & Reed, then Springer & Lang, Wolf devoted much of his time to human rights work, before becoming a solo practitioner in 2005.
“I never wanted to be a ‘normal’ lawyer,” says Wolf, who had wanted to work for a nonprofit organization, and had applied to some 20 that specialized in refugee and human rights but “to no avail,” he quips.
Nonetheless, he spent years as a consultant to Refugees International, including joining its mission to help the Vietnamese “boat people” held in detention centers in Indonesia and the Philippines, even finding “creative ways” to get inside some of those centers “prisons, really,” he says ‹ where tens of thousands of asylum-seekers were being held. As a co-founder and co-director of the Arlington-based Legal Assistance for Vietnamese Asylum Seekers, Inc. (LAVAS), Wolf later spearheaded a class action-type lawsuit in Hong Kong High Court targeting the unfair screening process of asylum-seekers wanting to resettle in the West, which led to “significant reform” of that process, he says.
A decade later, Wolf experienced “the biggest legal victory of my life” when he successfully represented more than 150 former American hostages who had been used as “human shields” by Saddam Hussein. The case resulted in freeing up blocked Iraqi accounts in 2003, which “paid my clients in full,” he says, “and made me a wealthy man.” That wealth made it possible for him to found his own humanitarian organization, International Lifeline Fund (ILF), in 2003, which he dedicated to the memory of his neuroscientist father, George. “Dad always emphasized the importance of making a contribution in life,” he recalls.
Wolf has since steered his foundation’s early emphasis on refugee advocacy to “tangible” projects. “It’s called ‘going to the field,’ ” says Wolf, who as ILF president has traveled to such regions as Darfur, the Kenya/Somali border and Northern Uganda and, more recently, Haiti to oversee projects to bring clean water and fuel-efficient stoves to refugees and others living in poverty, as well as educate people about hygiene and create jobs.
Wolf, meanwhile, remains involved in numerous class action cases at home, recently winning a decade-long, multimillion-dollar age discrimination case for television writers.