The Iranian political asylum seeker who raised $1M for Tree of Life finally visited Pittsburgh

Hear him on the Unorthodox podcast.

Unorthodox hosts Stephanie Butnick, Mark Oppenheimer, and Liel Leibovitz with Shay Khatiri.

Unorthodox hosts Stephanie Butnick, Mark Oppenheimer, and Liel Leibovitz with Shay Khatiri.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
Rossilynne Culgan

Shay Khatiri raised more than $1 million for Tree of Life synagogue, and until today, he’d never even set foot in Pittsburgh.

Khatiri visited for a live taping of the Unorthodox podcast, the No. 1 podcast on iTunes focusing on Jewish life and culture, during which he was featured as the show’s “Gentile of the Week.”

Though Khatiri won’t have time to see the sights on this short, whirlwind trip, he said he spotted the Steelers and Pirates stadiums and, of course, gawked at the skyline view from the Fort Pitt Bridge on the way from the airport. He also met Pittsburghers, who swarmed him with hugs and words of thanks after the podcast taping at Clear Story in the South Side.

Attendees light 11 menorahs in honor of the 11 Tree of Light victims.

Attendees light 11 menorahs in honor of the 11 Tree of Light victims.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

On Oct. 27, the morning of the Tree of Life massacre, a Jewish friend shared the news with a hungover Khatiri.

“I just felt like I wanted to do something to make myself feel better. I told her I’m going to give some money to the congregation,” he said.

She responded, “You don’t have to do that. You’re really poor.”

So Khatiri had some coffee and realized, “There are probably a lot of people who want to feel better.” Even though his $36 might not make a big impact, he thought, many donations could.

“What would change a life is all those $36 [donations] combined. I thought maybe I could create that platform, and it would go viral. I had a very high goal — $50,000.”

Within a few hours, he knew the GoFundMe he created would easily exceed the steep goal, so he increased it. Now, a month later, the fundraiser has collected $1,228,990 from 18,340 people with donations still coming. Money is sent directly to Tree of Life, through GoFundMe’s nonprofit partner PayPal Giving Fund.

“This fundraiser is meant to help the congregation with the physical damages to the building, as well as the survivors and the victims’ families,” Khatiri wrote on the fundraiser page. “Respond to this hateful act with your act of love today.”

Humble, Khatiri said he feels awkward about all the attention, which has so far included profiles in local and international publications.

“I really don’t think I deserve all the credit I’m receiving,” he told the crowd of more than 100. “I didn’t do anything other than spending two minutes starting a GoFundMe page.”

The 29-year-old is working toward a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an Iranian-born political asylum seeker who’s been blacklisted by the Iranian government for signing a letter urging President Trump to impose sanctions on Iran.

He describes America as “the nation of values and ideals,” particularly freedom and liberty.

“I cherish these values. I want to lead a life to champion these values, and I think that makes me an American,” Khatiri told The Incline. “I love this country. This is the county that I would die for.”

In addition to sharing his story with Pittsburghers, Khatiri previously appeared on an Unorthodox taping hosted in Houston, Texas. Stay tuned here for an upload of the Pittsburgh episode, hosted by Mark Oppenheimer, Stephanie Butnick, and Liel Leibovitz.

The New York-based Unorthodox staff visited Pittsburgh in the aftermath of the shooting and produced a must-listen episode called “On Squirrel Hill.” Those they interviewed urged them to come back during happier times, Unorthodox producer Josh Kross said.

They decided to return for a live-taping and knew they had to bring Khatiri.

The Steelers provided a Terrible Towel for every guest.

The Steelers provided a Terrible Towel for every guest.

Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline

“We brought Shay here to experience Pittsburgh and talk to Pittsburghers because we love him,” Kross said. “He’s a longtime fan of the show.”

Khatiri said he hopes to be able to return to Pittsburgh in the future to attend some sports games and to explore the city.

In addition to the interview with Khatiri, the show featured Pittsburgh’s matchmaker Tova Weinberg who founded the website Guests waved Terrible Towels donated by the Steelers, ate 45 pounds of latkes donated by Russ & Daughters, snacked on chocolate Hanukkah gelt, and lit 11 menorahs in memory of the 11 Tree of Life victims.