‘Homeland’ star Mandy Patinkin talks Syrian refugee crisis, America’s war on terror

Homeland” fans are eagerly awaiting tonight’s nail-biting finale of the Showtime drama’s fifth season, which has presciently mirrored real-world headlines about terrorism and Syria’s civil war throughout its 12-episode run.

“Homeland” star Mandy Patinkin found his own unique way to mark the end of production last month on an emotionally charged season that lensed in Berlin. He dove into those same headlines by visiting a refugee center on the Greek island of Lesbos. He wanted to bear witness to the devastating repercussions of the civil war in Syria.

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Working with the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian rescue org founded in the U.S. in 1933 by Albert Einstein to aid Jews fleeing fascism, Patinkin spent time at an IRC center assisting the thousands of refugees arriving on Greece’s shores virtually every day. Patinkin has returned to his homeland with a message about the Middle Eastern refugee crisis that is in sharp contrast to the current political debate over Syrian refugees.

After nearly six months in Berlin shooting “Homeland,” Patinkin said he could not help but be aware of the human toll of Syria’s complicated internal warfare — from the forces loyal to president Bashar al-Assad and their opponents to the ISIS terror organization that is occupying growing regions of the country as it descends further into lawless chaos.

“I just wanted to connect with reality as opposed to the fictional world I was living in,” Patinkin told Variety. “I just wanted to be of some use to those people who have been living through a literal hell. This could have been my family 70 years ago escaping the Nazis.”

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Patinkin stood on the shore in Lesbos as several refugee boats arrived — most of them small craft designed for 24 passengers but carrying 60 or more. The most emotional moment of the trip came when a boat pulled up and a father immediately put his 5-year-old daughter, wrapped up in a pink jacket and life preserver, in Patinkin’s hands while he tended to his other children. Patinkin saw the girl’s eyes were closed an immediately feared the worst. “In my head I thought ‘please let this child be alive,’ “ he recalls. Seconds later, he felt a rush of relief as he felt her tiny hand squeezing his pinky.

Patinkin said he was floored by the courageousness of the refugees as they fled war and persecution by the various factions in their homeland. One family he met saw all of their money fall into the ocean on the rough passage from Syria to Greece. Patinkin gave them enough money to continue their journey to Germany.

The actor’s experience in Lesbos did not prepare him for the shock of returning home to the U.S. to find what he sees as hate-mongering and intolerance, some of it stoked by politicians. Rather than shunning Syrian refugees, Americans should embrace them and make them feel welcome, he said.

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Concerns that some refugees may be tired to terror groups plotting actions against Americans has sparked numerous GOP presidential candidates and some governors to call for a halt to Syrian refugee relocations to the United States. Donald Trump has gone so far as to call for a temporary ban on all non-U.S. Muslims entering the country.

“There has not been a single incident of terrorism in this country since 9/11 committed by a political refugee — this is a fact,” Patinkin said, with emotion rising in his voice. “People who are on the terrorist watch list in the country can buy a gun legally. These are the people we should be afraid of, not these refugees.”

Patinkin and his wife, actress Kathryn Grody, have befriended a Syrian family with six children who recently relocated to Elizabeth, N.J. The oldest daughter is starting to look for colleges. The youngest kids are getting settled into their local schools. The father was a lawyer in Syria who had to leave everything behind because of political persecution from Assad’s regime. They are an American immigrant success story waiting to happen, Patinkin asserted.

In connection with the IRC, Patinkin is active in fundraising and other efforts to assist Syrian refugees. But he argues that the most effective way to help these people is not with money but friendship.

“Find one of these refugee centers and go visit a family,” Patinkin says. “Bring them to your home for dinner. Walk them around your neighborhood. Take them to your church. Make them feel welcome in this country.”

Patinkin has been spreading this message while on a mini-media tour this month. After his Dec. 4 visit to “CBS This Morning,” he was struck by how fortune he is to be a working actor compared to the struggles of those he saw emerging from boats in Lesbos.

“This is how wild my life is,” he said. “After I did the CBS interview I went home, made a few phone calls and then went to a studio and had the time of my life voicing Papa Smurf for four and a half hours,” for Sony Pictures’ 2017 release “Get Smurfy.”

“I just want other people to know the kind of joy that I have in my life,” Patinkin added. “I want other people to be able to have fun.”

Patinkin’s “Homeland” character is a far cry from Papa Smurf. He loves playing the intense CIA operative Saul Berenson because the character in many ways is in synch with Patinkin’s personal point of view on world events. ‘He’s a deeply optimistic, hopeful human being,” Patinkin said.

“Homeland’s” writers were prescient this year in setting the show in Berlin and crafting storylines that wound up mirrored world events — no more so than the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris. Patinkin has only the highest praise for the “Homeland” writing team, led by showrunner Alex Gansa, but he also feels that the show’s main advantage is its fearlessness in tackling the biggest geopolitical problems of our times.

“They’re writing what we’re all living,” he said. “You’d have to be blind, deaf and dumb not to see the drama in the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East.”

As the “Homeland” team takes a breather before gearing up work on season six, Patinkin drops a big hint about his fondest hope for Saul Berenson next year.

“I want to see Saul make it clear to everyone in the intelligence industry that what (the U.S.) has been doing with drones and violence and warfare and revenge tactics doesn’t work,” he said. “We have won the battle but lost the war. I want Saul to get the message across that the billions and billions of dollars that we have spent fighting terrorism isn’t working. We need to spend this money to give people a better life. That’s how you battle ISIS. That’s how you give people hope.”