Iranian Refugee Has Raised Over $1M for Tree of Life Synagogue Victims

Mourners visit the memorial outside the Tree of Life synagogue / Getty Images

Shay Khatiri, a 29-year-old refugee from Iran with no direct connection to Pittsburgh, started a GoFundMe campaign for the victims of the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue that has now raised over a million dollars.

"I just wanted it to be helpful to the community and for the survivors and the victims," Khatiri said in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

After waking up at the home of a Jewish friend after a long night of Halloween parties, Khatiri was shocked to hear about the shooting Saturday at Tree of Life that took the lives of 11 congregants and injured six others, including four police officers.

Khatiri is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and had previously used GoFundMe to raise funds to cover summer internships. He was nevertheless surprised by how quickly his campaign for Tree of Life went viral. Since initiating the account, which is set up so that Khatiri has no control over the money and the funds go directly to the congregation, he has been in contact with the president of the synagogue.

"I talked to the president briefly. I found him and called him up and said this is what’s happening, and it turned out he had found out about it earlier. You could hear how sad he was, which was heartbreaking to me, but he was very grateful and asked for my contact information. He was understandably very busy," Khatiri told the Post-Gazette.

When asked why he, an Iranian refugee who has never even been to Pittsburgh, felt compelled to set up this fund that has been so successful, Khatiri said, "I have been on the receiving end of a lot of Jewish generosity. I’ve been involved in several nonprofit organizations that benefited from Jewish philanthropy. And a lot of my mentors — both professors and bosses — almost all of them are Jewish. I have been on the receiving end all of my life, and I felt there was this one small thing I could do."

Khatiri, however, doesn't want to take credit for the funds raised so far, saying, "it’s the donors. I’ll take credit for the $36 I contributed myself, and for the two minutes of work I put into setting it up."

Khatiri came to the United States on a student visa nearly five years ago and has been active in dissident groups that are critical of the Iranian regime. Since leaving Iran, he has been blacklisted by its government. His discovery of the fact led him to apply for asylum, and his case is still pending.

"I really feel like I was born an American but in the wrong country," he told the Post-Gazette. "I want to be a foreign independent policy expert and service this country in any way I can."