“It’s not my fundraiser,” Khatiri, 29, said in a phone interview with JTA on Thursday. “It’s the fundraiser that I started, but it belongs to everybody who donated.”
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, in which a gunman killed 11 people 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.
Khatiri, who is studying at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, initially told his friend that he wanted to donate directly to the synagogue.
“I told her I was going to give a little money, a small amount, to the congregation, but then I thought to maybe do this in the hope of it going viral and actually have a big impact,” he said.
He made a page through the GoFundMe website and donations quickly started pouring in. Khatiri had used the site twice to raise smaller amounts of money to cover living expenses while pursuing an internship, but had little experience with large-scale fundraising.
“I never thought it would reach a million dollars,” he said. “It definitely was very surprising, and it’s amazing that people are still giving money.”
As of Friday afternoon, the total raised exceeded $1.1 million.
Khatiri isn’t the only one raising money in the wake of the shooting. A campaign by Muslim organizations has raised over $200,000 and the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh started a fund for the victims.
The money raised by Khatiri is being delivered directly to the Tree of Life synagogue through GoFundMe. He says he hasn’t had much contact with the synagogue, other than a brief phone call with its president.
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 not just a random crazy guy shooting at a crowd randomly,” Khatiri said. “It was targeting Jews, who are historically the most persecuted people in the world, and that made it much more horrible.”
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 Affair Committee.
Khatiri was involved in Iran’s 2009 Green Movement protests, and he signed an open letter in 2016 to President Donald Trump urging him to impose sanctions on Iran. He says the latter action got him blacklisted by Iran’s government.
He hopes to stay and work in the United States after finishing his graduate studies.
“I want to serve this country that has given me every opportunity to be happy,” he said. “However I can serve it I will, whether it’s from inside the government or outside the government.”
Khatiri says he is happy to see so many people coming together to aid the Tree of Life synagogue.
“It was nice to see that people really cared and wanted to help the survivors,” he said.