US/World News

Iranian asylum seeker raises $1+ million for Pittsburgh synagogue

By Josefin Dolsten/(JTA) – Khashayar “Shay” Khatiri doesn’t like taking credit for the money he raised for the Pittsburgh synagogue where a shooting took place last month. “It’s the fundraiser that I started, but it belongs to everybody who donated,” Khatiri, 29, told JTA.

The Iran native and Washington, D.C., resident has made headlines across the country for helping to raise over $1 million in the aftermath of the shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation. Khatiri, who is not Jewish, says that he was moved to action shortly after learning about the shooting. The graduate student was staying at a Jewish friend’s apartment on the morning of the deadly attack. “I woke up, and she gave me the news and it was very upsetting,” recalled Khatiri, who is seeking political asylum in the United States due to his political activism against the Iranian government. He is currently studying at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

To fundraise for Tree of Life, he made a page through the GoFundMe website and donations quickly started pouring in. “I never thought it would reach a million dollars,” he said. As of Nov. 9, the total raised exceeded $1.1 million. Khatiri says he was motivated to raise money for the synagogue because of his experiences with Jewish friends and mentors, who have helped him through financial difficulties. “I’ve always been on the receiving end of Jewish kindness and generosity, and I feel indebted to Jews,” he said. The fact that the shooter specifically targeted a synagogue hit him hard. “It was targeting Jews, who are historically the most persecuted people in the world, and that made it much more horrible,” he said.

Growing up in the northern Iranian city of Gorgan, Khatiri, who was raised in an atheist family but now identifies as a Deist, had little interaction with Jews. But that changed when he left his home country. In 2011, Khatiri moved to Hungary, where he became close with Israelis living there. Three years later he moved to the United States to pursue an undergraduate degree at Arizona State University. Both during his college days and later in graduate school, many of his friends and mentors were Jewish, he says.

Even before meeting Jews, Khatiri admired Israel. “I’ve always liked Israel as the only liberal democracy in the Middle East, which is very impressive,” he said. “I admire it as a democracy, which is something that I was denied for most of my life in Iran.” While at Arizona State, he served as a campus legislative coordinator for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Khatiri was involved in Iran’s 2009 Green Movement protests, and he signed an open letter in 2016 to President Trump urging him to impose sanctions on Iran. He says the latter action got him blacklisted by Iran’s government. Khatiri hopes to stay and work in the United States after finishing his graduate studies.

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