Bnyad Sharef & Maggie Anderson on Being Unlikely Friends

While Maggie Anderson was an enthusiastic supporter of then-candidate Donald Trump’s tough stance on Muslim refugees, her newfound friendship with Bnyad Sharef, an Iraqi refugee, changed her mind. They sit down with Michel Martin to discuss their transformative relationship.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: The barriers that seem to keep people apart can often vanish within minutes of actually meeting and talking. That is especially apparent with our next guest Bnyard Sharef and Maggie Anderson. He was an Iraqi refugee living in America. She was an enthusiastic supporter of then candidate Trump’s tough stance against Muslim refugees. It was only by a stroke of luck that the two met and developed an enduring friendship that overcame their initial differences. They’re story went viral after a report was published on mic.com (ph) and they told our Michel Martin about their transformative relationship.


MICHEL MARTIN: Bnyard Sharef, Maggie Anderson; thank you so much for being with us today. So let me just start by asking how you met. I understand it was a photo shoot for Catholic relief services. Sharef, you want to start?

BNYARD SHAREF, IRAQI REFUGEE: Yes, so I was with my — I was working with an organization in Tennessee, Nashville where I live, and they — I heard about this campaign and they asked me to be a part of it. We’re a Catholic relief services with a photographer called Jeremy Cowart. They made this project to get together immigrants and refugees and — together with people who are in some ways fearful or have – aren’t very welcome of immigrants and refugees. So, that’s how I — I went in to this. It was just a day long thing. And that’s where I was photographed with —

MARTIN: With Maggie.

SHAREF: Maggie.

MARTIN: Maggie. OK, so Maggie did you sign up for this or how did you — how did you get involved with that?

MAGGIE ANDERSON, SUPPORTED MUSLIM BAN: I was actually walking in the mall trying to get my phone fixed. And someone came up to me; I kept like telling them I like don’t want to answer your question because those were the people with clipboards (ph). And then eventually they asked me do you think refugees should enter the country? And I was like no. And I was the first person to say that. So, they asked me to join this campaign and I told them yes.

MARTIN: Really? What made you do it?

ANDERSON: I love politics, I`ve been obsessed with it my whole life. They like offered me $300. And I would’ve done it for free. I like go downtown at my — like it’s a nice small town and debate people for fun. So, it was a pretty cool opportunity.

MARTIN: Did you realize that you were going to paired with somebody–


MARTIN: — from an immigrant background and take a picture together?

ANDERSON: No. But like once I got there, I saw people who were like obviously, like refugees. And I was disappointed with myself because I should’ve saw it coming. In my head I was like of course they’re going to make me tell this to like an actual person, not just like ideas.

MARTIN: And so what happened?

ANDERSON: I was taking my portraits. And then Bnyad came. And they had us take a photo holding Muslin prayer beads. And then I had my rosary like around my neck, I’m Catholic, and so I took it off. And then we took a photo where Bnyad held like the Catholic rosary, and I held the Muslim prayer beads.

MARTIN: How did you feel about that?

ANDERSON: I was a little concerned at first. But at the same time, I really appreciated it because it was like pluralistic. He was the opposite of what I pictured Muslim people to be in my head at the time.

MARTIN: And what did you — how did you feel about that?

SHAREF: Yes. Well, I mean I had no idea even while I was being photographed with Maggie. I had no idea that she didn’t welcome — she didn’t want refugees to be able to (inaudible) in the U.S. She was just a young person there. And we talked a little bit, very normal conversations. And–

MARTIN: So, you didn’t get a vibe from her that she didn’t like you or–

SHAREF: No, yes.

MARTIN: Or she was scared of you? You got no negative vibes?

SHAREF: I didn’t get that – yes.

MARTIN: So, how did you find out later that she really wasn’t digging your act?

SHAREF: Yes, so we talk on the set and she’s like I’ve studied Islam and religions. And we talk a little bit more and we — I asked her if she wanted to continue this conversation over coffee. And we exchanged contact information. And I found her online. And as soon as I go to her Facebook page, I see her Facebook cover photo is her — of her at a Trump rally. And her newsfeed is very obviously all rightwing news sources like not welcoming refugees, things like that. And she — I thinks he got her — Trump’s autograph or something like very involved. And she was very vocal about it. Her — had like all her newsfeed was headlines about refugees being banned or committing crimes and doing bad things to this country which I was — it was — it came of like a shock to me.

MARTIN: And when you saw that, did you still want to go get coffee?



SHAREF: I was — I was like I think she just tricked me or she has another motive for seeing me. Maybe she’s going to harass me or just make fun of me, I was — I had no– like it was unknown to me.

MARTIN: Maggie, tell me. I know that you’re interested in religion. That you spent a lot of time studying–


MARTIN: — religion and your choice to embrace Catholicism was a choice for example.


MARTIN: As something that you came to after a period of study. What was it about Muslims that still concerns you?

ANDERSON: I was studying Islam a lot. Like my sophomore year of high school, I read the whole Quran. And in parts of Islam, there’s a thing called chronic aggregation. So like, because it contradicts itself so much, everything in the back of the book or the things Muhammad said later supersede the beginning. And so the problem with that is that all the stuff in the back of the book is like the not so peaceful verses.

MARTIN: So, you associated with violence and the hostility toward non- Muslims?

ANDERSON: And terrorism in general too. And I — I also take an international terrorism class. But after that class, I continued studying. But the sources I had were like very rightwing sources that well, obviously there is an issue with terrorism in the Islamic community, they generalized it to every single Muslim.

MARTIN: When Bnyad said to you, hey, let’s get together and continue this conversation, what did you think?

ANDERSON: I thought he was going to try to convert me to Islam. So, I studied so much about like Christianity and the history and the Catholic Church, because I was going to try to like counter convert him to Catholicism. But then we — our conversations we had was just like a normal conversation that we respected each other. And we’d like talk about topics, but it wasn’t like — it was like a pluralistic in nature rather than like hateful.

MARTIN: And that surprised you?

ANDERSON: A little bit at first, yes.

MARTIN: Yes, have you ever met any Muslims before?

ANDERSON: Many actually.

MARTIN: Really?

ANDERSON: The one thing that like was bizarre to me is like I don’t — I can’t comprehend how I had these beliefs because my senior high school, my two best friends was a girl from Pakistan and a girl from Kazakhstan. One of the — only one of them was like very religious. But in my heart I feel as though I blamed it on the male — like men in Islam rather than the woman. I kind of saw the women and children as victims.

MARTIN: And what about the refugee aspect, rather the immigrant aspect of it?

ANDERSON: I was fearful that people would come and like rape statistics will go up and women will be abused and that gay people and hate crimes would occur. Those were like my biggest concerns, I guess. And so I was just fearful that with like a huge influx of refugees like all the parts of America that I love would be like taken away because it’s like a relatively safe country in comparison but I no longer find that to be true.

MARTIN: Bnyad, I’m just going to ask you is it hard to sit here and hear that? Like to hear that — like somebody sitting next to you thought that you, you’re family, other people that you know would be — come here (inaudible), you know, attacking people. Is that — is that hard to hear?

SHAREF: It is really hard and what’s even harder is that she’s not the only person to believe that and it’s — yes, I think it speaks to that a lot of people think the same way and that is very unsettling to think about it.

MARTIN: You are born in Iraqi and your dad was a translator for the U.S. army and so tell me it is why it is that you are — your family decided to leave.

SHAREF: Yes. That’s — so my family — my dad, he worked with U.S. government around the time when the U.S. forces came into Iraq around 2002 and 2003. You know Iraq, as soon as I was born; Iraq has been in terrible place over the years. What my dad did when — was — there was a promise for a better future for Iraq and a democratic free future and my dad really believed in that and he was — he wanted this new promise — this new promising future and he was willing to risk his life to help be part of it. And unknowingly that affiliation with the U.S. government had turned him into a target to a lot of people.

MARTIN: What was it that made your father, your parents feel it was finally time to go?

SHAREF: Well, it was — the final straw was that in 2014 was when the — ISIS was getting — gaining a lot of strong hold in northern Iraq and becoming a much bigger problem and it was, I think that that moment my father decided that it was time for him to get on this program that the U.S. government had established to bring — resettle the allies to the United States. And he — he had the opportunity to do this before but it was at that moment that was when he decided that it was finally time to do it.

MARTIN: And how long did it take before you were able to get your VISAs?

SHAREF: It took about three years. When they finally gave us the yes, it was around December 2016, around election time here in the U.S.

MARTIN: We’re you following what was going on in the election from Iraq? Did you — did you — were you aware of the conversations that people were having?

SHAREF: Yes, we were very loosely following it. We weren’t that detailed into it.

MARTIN: And then it did happen that there was a — an attempt to impose a ban and it actually happened overnight. And then you were caught in that. I just want to play a short — a clip from that day.


FUAD SHAREF: This is my wife and this is my little daughter. I was denied the boarding flight to JFK.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (Inaudible) worked with the U.S. government in Iraq as a translator, putting his life on the line. It took two years to get approved for special VISAs for him and his family. They’re original flight ended up being scheduled for just hours after the travel band went into effect.

F. SHAREF: I sold my house. I quit my job. My wife quit her job. And kids left school. All this and — and — and I paid $5,000 for the tickets, all went down the drain.


MARTIN: I can only imagine what that felt like but do you mind trying to describe what it was like for you when you were on the plane and your family was taken off the plane.

SHAREF: Yes, well it was very, very nerve racking and a lot of despair. I mean I remember when they told us that they’re not going to let us board. I just completely fell to the floor and we were, I guess, sitting there not knowing what’s going to happen next.

MARTIN: Maggie, you saw the story about Bnyad on ABC when it first aired. What was your reaction?

ANDERSON: I was sitting in the living room of my house with my sister. And I turned and looked at her and I said this is liberal propaganda. They’re taking one family story and generalizing it to all Muslims.

MARTIN: And then you saw it again.

ANDERSON: Yes, because I was trying to learn how like to say his name.

MARTIN: And you realized it was this guy that you –


MARTIN: – you had just met?

ANDERSON: I watched it, and it actually made me cry because I was so horrified, because, in my head, that’s not the people I was stopping from entering the country. Bnyad is not an extreme terrorist, or an extreme Muslim. He’s like far from that. I saw the statistics, not people, and after watching that video, I like removed the stuff off of my social media. And I then I continued like researching and hearing other people’s stories. And then, at that point, I changed my mind about refugees.

MARTIN: Did you tell Bnyad?

ANDERSON: Yes, I sent him a text.

SHAREF: I remembered just – I couldn’t believe what happened. I mean I had just checked Facebook, and she had removed everything. And I was like – I realized how powerful it was to have interaction and you know, have a human connection. So I was – I just – I was just – my reaction was, “I need to tell somebody what just happened, because I don’t believe it.”

MARTIN: And the rest is kind of –

SHAREF: Yes, history.

MARTIN: – history, right. The rest is history, so now you all are friends, right. You’re sort of friends. So kind of – let’s dig in here.

Maggie, it’s not that that information wasn’t available before, and in fact, you saw Bnyad’s story before, and you choose not to believe it. But now, you’ve chosen to believe it.


MARTIN: Why do you think that is?

ANDERSON: It was the difference between like seeing a video on the internet and then seeing like an actual person in real life.

MARTIN: So the question I’m having now is what do we do with this, because so much of the way we interact these days is projecting through like social media and stuff like that? What – do you – do you think, in your friendship, there’s sort of a way forward for the rest of us? What should we do?

ANDERSON: People, in general, and like Americans, when you talk about politics, they’re so concerned about I need to be right, and I need to change this person’s mind, instead of looking at an issue and saying this is a problem and what’s the best way to solve it. So I feel like most people are so prideful, and their opinions, at least in my case, where it’s – it’s too hard to say no, I’m wrong. So people just start like getting upset, rather than like actually listening, like actively, to the person they’re talking with.

MARTIN: Bnyad, is there anything Maggie’s changed your mind about?

SHAREF: Yes, I think it really – I had lot of stereotypes, and I mean I picture a Trump supporter as one, a prototype thing. I didn’t view them as more complicated. There’s a lot of people who voted for Trump for something that – like one issue that they believed in that really wanted some political candidate to speak on that issue. And he picked up on that issue, and that’s why they support him. And it’s not that – maybe that they’re just probably not racist at all.

MARTIN: I don’t know if you still consider yourself a Trump supporter, but what was your main reason for supporting Trump? I mean you’ve already said it, it was part of his policy toward immigration that you agreed with. But were there other reasons?

ANDERSON: Yes, I agree – I still agree with some of the things that Donald Trump stands for. For example, I’m like a free – I’m like full free speech of all forms, like no matter what. And I found that he supported that more. I’m also, like pro the 2nd Amendment, and I’m very prolife. That’s like on thing I will never change my mind about, and it’s also part of the reason why I changed my mind about immigration.

MARTIN: Tell me more about that.

ANDERSON: Well, I’m like so prolife, and I’m always like so concerned about like you can’t just kill, in my opinion, like the life of a baby even if they’re not born. But you can’t just be prolife for that person, I need to be prolife for all people. So that means if they’re immigrants that want to enter the country to like better their lives, that’s like a prolife stance as well. It’s not just like – it’s not just about abortion.

MARTIN: So you’re talking to people, in part, because you want people to know that this kind of conversation is possible. Where do you think it goes next? Do you have anyt thought out that?

SHAREF: What I want to – my message is that to not take everything – I mean you see, like a new story, for example, do not take that and believe in that like as your total belief. I think people – there should be – it’s – everything is more complicated than we realize.

ANDERSON: Americans, in general, on both sides, in my opinion, need to learn how to look at the other side with a like – like still with a critical eye, but with an understanding that what they’re saying could be true, and there’s a possibility that you’re wrong.

MARTIN: So Maggie, has this – has your friendship with Bnyad changed your trajectory for your life in any way? I mean has it changed what you want to do?

ANDERSON: Yes. Now, I’m planning on going to college to become an immigration attorney. So I’ve changed people’s minds against refugees before in the past, just the things I’ve in my town, in debating people. And I feel morally obligated to like undo that, but I also would like to help. Immigration is now one of my most important political issues.

MARTIN: Bnyad Sharef, Maggie Anderson, thank you both so much for talking with us.

ANDERSON: Thank you.

SHAREF: Thank you.

MARTIN: And for being open minded.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with Martin Griffiths, U.N. Special Envoy to Yemen, about the need for humanitarian support there; and Israeli News Anchor Lucy Aharish & actor Tsahi Halevi about their story of love and conflict. Michel Martin speaks with Bnyad Sharef & Maggie Anderson about their transformative relationship.