Debra Messing and Mandana Dayani: Supporting Refugees is a Core Jewish Value


HIAS hosts "Welcome to Paradise: Refugees at Home in LA," a series in partnership with the Holocaust Museum LA seeking to elevate the voices of refugees and asylum seekers who found refuge in Los Angeles and their ongoing contributions to their adopted home. On Tuesday, February 16, this program featured former HIAS client Mandana Dayani and her good friend, actress and activist Debra Messing.

Dayani is the creator and co-founder of I am a voter., a nonpartisan movement that aims to create a cultural shift around voting and civic engagement. She and Messing co-host the podcast, The Dissenters, in which they highlight the journeys of 20 of their heroes in an effort to inspire activism in others. The two women spoke with HIAS about the need to welcome refugees to the United States and get involved in fighting all forms of discrimination. 

Dayani herself is a former refugee. For years after the 1979 revolution in Iran, she and her family attempted to flee the country. In 1987, they finally obtained a visa to go to Italy and were eventually, with the help of HIAS, granted asylum in the United States. Dayani went on to become a corporate attorney, talent agent, and producer of hit shows like The Rachel Zoe Project.

Dayani said her experience as a refugee fleeing religious persecution is a huge part of what drove her to be an activist. She is an outspoken supporter of refugees and asylum seekers who has gone to the U.S.-Mexico border on humanitarian missions. Supporting refugees, she said, is both a core Jewish value and a critical part of the fight against all forms of bigotry.

"The most Jewish thing in the world is to be a great host, to welcome people to your home," she said during the event. "This is who we are as a people."

Messing agreed, and she took the previous administration to task for its anti-refugee policies and the hate it sowed toward immigrants and minority groups. Like Dayani, she said Americans from all ethnic and religious minorities should support each other in fighting for equal rights.

“The promise of this country has yet to be attained, we have to do it together," Messing said. "There is no way for us to achieve that if we … stay in our own lanes.”

Messing is best known for her role as Grace Adler on Will & Grace, a hit TV comedy that proved revolutionary in breaking down barriers for the LGBTQ community. Having experienced anti-Semitism as a child, Messing said she never forgot what it meant to be “othered” and applied that ethos to her acting and activism.

While the new administration is more supportive of refugees and asylum seekers than its predecessor, Messing emphatically stated that activists cannot let up. “Everything in life is political," she said. "To be silent is a political choice, and silence can create violence.”

It’s clear that for both Dayani and Messing, sitting on the sidelines isn’t an option. In addition to elevating the need to advocate for refugees and asylum seekers, they’re getting ready for more fascinating conversations in their upcoming season of The Dissenters and ensuring people vote in local and midterm elections through I am a voter.

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