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Kal Penn is 'inspired' after raising more than $600,000 for Syrian refugees

After a weekend of airport protests across the country in response to President Trump’s temporary ban on refugees coming into the U.S., pushback has also come in another form: money.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which successfully fought for an emergency stay late Saturday night to halt the deportations of any refugees or others who hold valid visas to enter the U.S., received $24 million in donations over the last few days. Then there’s the effort put forth by actor Kal Penn.

Penn, who stars in ABC’s politically charged “Designated Survivor” and briefly served in the Obama administration, took a moment of online harassment and made it the footing for a fundraising campaign on behalf of the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping "people whose lives and livelihoods are shattered by conflict and disaster."

After someone left a comment on an Instagram post by Penn saying that “he [doesn’t] belong in this country,” Penn, who was born to Indian parents in New Jersey, set up a fundraising page Saturday “donating to Syrian refugees in the name of the dude who said I don’t belong in America.” And then he tweeted out the link.

The hope was to raise at least $2,500. As of Monday afternoon, the page has accrued more than $650,000 in donations. We spoke to Penn by phone Monday morning to talk about the response.

This all started with a comment left on your Instagram page. What was it about this one that prompted you to find a way to change the narrative? 

Usually, I ignore that stuff. But then I thought, this is ridiculous. We’ve, unfortunately, seen a rise in rhetoric like this because of the president’s own rhetoric on things like this. It’s not the America I know and love. And I feel like most people would agree with me on that. So I thought, let’s flip the narrative a little bit. I felt like we could raise, like, $2,500 for Syrian refugees in this guy’s name. And IRC is a great organization that does work particularly with Syrian refugees, which were specifically named as not being allowed in. I went to their website and they have a partnership with CrowdRise, so in, like, a minute, you can set up a funding page. I tweeted the link thinking we could raise $2,500, and within 20 minutes, we hit the goal. So then I raised the goal, thinking maybe we could get $5,000 and so on. The nice thing about CrowdRise is once you hit your goal, you can keep accepting donations.

You’ve now raised over $600,000.

Well, I haven’t done any of it! This is the beautiful thing about it. All I did was set up a page. It’s tens of thousands of people who feel exactly the same way, who are thinking this is not the America I know and love. The people who think we should be a beacon of hope for everybody. That’s what’s really inspiring about all this.

What’s the data on where people are donating from?

People from all 50 states have donated. We just got the data on that. And 45 different countries, so far. That’s really inspiring. I would not say I was dry-eyed in that moment.

How long will you keep up the page?

I don’t know. It’s literally being driven by the people. I’m technically the editor of the page. That means I can raise the goal of the page, I guess. I think it just depends on how people are feeling. I can’t underscore that enough. I’m sitting here so inspired by all of these people. We saw that, certainly, with the Women’s March, we saw all the people who rallied this weekend at airports in support of the folks who were being detained. It’s just beautiful.

The president signed this executive order. It’s obviously a Muslim ban and it’s a ban on refugees. There are two things that are at play here: There’s the moral imperative, which is abhorrent and un-American and this is not who we are. Then there’s the national security element of it, which is that something like this actually makes us less safe because it’s a tool that ISIS and other groups use to say, ‘Look, the United States doesn’t like Muslims’ — which is not true. The president is making a truth out of that, unfortunately. 

What do you say to those who feel like they’re not welcome here?

That’s the beauty of what you’re seeing on social media and, physically, at airports right now. We have an incredibly regressive president who is signing these bigoted executive orders. But then you have the majority of the American people who don’t feel that way and are speaking out — speaking out boldly in a really beautiful way. The hope, certainly, is that actions like that show the rest of the world how we really feel and who we really are and that he does not speak for us.

And what about those who strongly believe in this executive order and its mission?

I think that’s a question that folks are not answering in …  nuanced ways. If you look at what the president has done with his National Security Council,  removing essentially any unbiased opinion from the intelligence community — the director of national security, the joint chiefs — these are people whose job it is to give the president the most unbiased advice on national security possible and he’s just removed those people from the National Security Council. There’s no logical support mechanism for a bigoted executive order like this, as evidence that the president is removing any objectivity to his entire process. He’s not acting on a recommendation to keep us safe. He’s acting despite the recommendation that doing this would make us less safe. And that, I think, is one of the most dangerous parts of all this.

Last night at the SAG Awards, a lot of actors used their time on stage to speak about the current political climate. Some people, particularly Trump supporters, say celebrities shouldn’t use such venues as platforms for their political viewpoints. What do you say to them?

I think you’d have to ask them why they’re upset when they voted for a reality TV star to be the president.

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yvonne.villarreal@latimes.com

Twitter: @villarrealy

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