Troubled by the anti-Muslim rhetoric that has echoed throughout Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, philanthropist Josh Weston enlisted friends to join him in supporting a family of Muslim immigrants who were forced to leave their native Afghanistan in time of war.
In addition to being a major donor to the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, Weston has been a long-time board member of the International Rescue Committee, which provides resettlement and health care to thousands of refugees from wars and natural disasters.
But the Montclair businessman, who is the honorary chair of the ADP Corporation in Roseland, said he wished to “go where the action is” to help people in trouble, rather than sit at meetings in comfortable board rooms.
In the past he has traveled to such troubled lands as Haiti, Lebanon, and the former Yugoslavia. Now, with hundreds of thousands pouring out of the Middle East, Weston has informally “adopted” three families — one from Iraq, where “al Qaida was harassing them”; another from a refugee camp in Nepal; and a third who were threatened by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Five years ago the Afghanis — Shabnam Baidariwal, an attorney, and her husband, Fazal, a civil engineer — were forced to flee because of their advocacy of women’s rights and girls’ access to education. Through the IRC, Weston met the couple two years after they settled in Elizabeth.
Fazal had been working in a supermarket but hoped to work in construction management, so Weston helped him enroll with a partial scholarship at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. Fazal received a master’s degree last spring and began a job with the Turner Construction Company. Weston also introduced Shabnam to people at Rutgers University in Newark, where she now works in the business school.
In an Oct. 10 interview, Weston told NJJN he was motivated in part by Trump’s political rhetoric branding Muslims as terrorists and the Republican candidate’s desire to enact a ban to prevent their coming to America. Such bombast, Weston said, is “very bad and inaccurate kind of crap.”
He decided to do more to help Shabnam and Fazal feel accepted in New Jersey, and sent a letter to 200 friends imploring them “to put out a welcome mat and put a little money where your mouth is,” asking each to send a $50 check. “I wanted to surprise the hell out of Fazal” with gifts of support from strangers, he said.
The surprise came at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on Oct. 26, when Weston presented Fazal with an envelope containing 220 checks totaling $15,000 (some were more than $50). The money will assist the Baidariwals in arranging child care for their three children and settling into their newly bought home in Iselin. The scene was captured for a segment of New Jersey Public Television’s One-on-One with Steve Adubato, which will air later this month or early December.
Moments after the taping ended, Shabnam told NJJN she was “somewhat surprised. We did not expect this, but Josh is always surprising us.”
For Weston, helping the Baidariwal family is about “being a good Jew,” although he noted that many of the people who sent checks are not Jewish. “They are all over the map,” he said. (None of the checks came from Muslims, he said.)
“The show was to tell the world about the IRC and refugees and to offset anti-Muslim bigotry,” Weston said. “The people who sent the checks thanked me for giving them a way to tell Muslims they are welcome here.”
Asked how she is adjusting to her new country, Shabnam said she felt “accomplished and proud” to be an American. “I have never faced Islamophobia. Everybody is super nice.”
Her husband agreed. For the five years he has lived in New Jersey he has “never seen any person who had any negative reaction” to his Muslim family.” He said Afghanis are “a very peaceful people, and we are working hard to end this war.”
Dov Ben-Shimon, CEO and executive vice president of the GMW federation, had high praise for Weston’s actions.
“Josh’s values, energy, and leadership are an inspiration in the community. I have watched his thoughtfulness, philanthropy, and leadership insight these past years, and every time I see the depth of his knowledge and generosity,” Ben-Shimon wrote in an e-mail to NJJN. “The values of hachnasat orhim (welcoming guests), hesed (kindness), and kehila (community) are strong in Greater MetroWest because of the example of people like Josh. I’m incredibly proud to know him, and I value his counsel and guidance.”