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Mandy Patinkin: ‘It’s morally imperative we welcome refugees’

Actor Mandy Patinkin is is ambassador for the International Rescue Committee. He recently visited the Za-atari and Azraq refugee camps in Jordan. As the grandson of refugees, Patinkin tells The Big Issue that when desperate people are faced with hatred, fake news is to blame

I never imagined that because I was an actor on the television series I would one day have the privilege of associating myself with an organisation like the International Rescue Committee.

People ask, how did I get into this? I was shooting Homeland in Berlin. The first episode in the fifth season took place in a Syrian refugee camp. At the same time in the real world, I was reading articles about tens of thousands of refugees trying to get to Germany for sanctuary and salvation. I saw those pictures and I remember thinking so clearly that it was my family there  – Grandpa Max and my Grandma Celia who fled Poland, Russia and Lithuania around 1900 to come to America. They had their arms open towards people in need from other countries and America became the melting pot of the world. Refugees from so many countries added to the cultural, political, scientific and artistic values and made America stronger in every aspect of society.

America became a nation of walls rather than welcome because of politicians looking to get themselves elected. They chose to point the finger at the most vulnerable people in the world. They are not connected to human lives, human heartbeats and the faces of children. It is the antithesis of the American character and the American identity. Those who use the argument that there might be bad apples in the crowd  – of course there are bad apples. They are everywhere. I’m an actor, there are bad actors! I ask people to please wake up and use their instincts and their smarts and recognise when politicians are telling you false information to make you afraid of our fellow human beings.

I know that there is criticism for what people in a variety of organisations in my country have done over the years. Some of their criticism is justified, some may not be, but in terms of the people I’ve met in the CIA who are very high up who have become friends of mine, I have come to learn how passionate they are about the refugee crisis. I know they do everything possible to make sure that we are doing all that can be done to bring human beings to safety, to refuge, to resettlement, and at the same time ensuring the safety of the citizens of our
own country.

You only hear of the mistakes that have been made – as they say in the news business, if it bleeds it leads. It’s a secret business so you don’t hear about the successes that have taken place and all the hard work. But because of my association with these people, I’ve never felt safer in my life. The real threat is fear from a lack of education, trying to educate people about the difference between made-up facts and truth. It’s not a political game, it is nothing less than a matter of life and death. The most important thing you can do is to be aware of them and listen to their stories. Do a little work to wake up your soul.

I went to Uganda to learn from their culture what the true definition of welcome means. The elders at the border with Sudan give every single Sudanese refugee family 1/8 of an acre to build a permanent home, a garden, and incorporate them into the society. At village markets they have alternating stalls with a Ugandan citizen then a refugee from South Sudan so they learn each other’s language and customs. That’s what America used to be all about.

America became a nation of walls rather than welcome

In the UK, the current Prime Minister has said that he believes it’s morally imperative that we welcome refugees and now is the time that is needed more than ever for him to put might and muscle behind those words and stand by his promise.

My grandfather had an expression in Yiddish: “Dos redele dreyt zikh,” which means the wheel is always turning. If you’re on top you need to be nice to the person on the bottom because one day you it could be you.

Anybody reading this article is associated with the homeless population in this country. You need to look no further than reading The Big Issue to be connected to a homeless population globally. Thank you for buying the paper and reading these words and take it one step further and think of faraway lands where people are desperate for your attention, your support and your kindness.

For more information on the International Rescue Committee visit or follow Mandy Patinkin on Twitter or Instagram

As told to Steven MacKenzie