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Inspired by online post, Edward Norton raises over $400K for Syrian refugee

It all started when Edward Norton read a profile about a Syrian refugee who'd lost his wife and daughter and is fighting stomach cancer.

Actor Edward Norton may have started a movement after being moved to tears

It all started when he read a profile on Brandon Stanton's acclaimed Humans of New York website about a Syrian refugee who'd lost his wife and daughter in a bombing and is fighting stomach cancer. The unidentified Syrian, known as "The Scientist," has relocated to Troy, Michigan, and Norton, through his charitable crowdfunding platform CrowdRise has been able to raise more than $420,000 for him and his family to help pay his medical expenses. Remarkably, the average donation has been only $28.

"You're going through your daily life, stressed about whatever you're stressed about on a given day and then you read something like that and you just realize that your own problems don't amount to a lot," Norton told MSNBC late on Monday.

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The "Birdman" star's post earlier this week on CrowdRise called on contributors to "reject the 'anti-human’ voices that tell us to fear refugees and show this man and his family what Americans are really made of." Norton's message was heeded by more than 14,000 donors and even President Barack Obama has weighed in, posting his support for The Scientist on Facebook, calling him and his family an "inspiration."

"It's wonderful to see people acting out of their sense of empathy and shared humanity and making that small gesture towards someone they don’t even know — it’s very powerful," Norton told MSNBC. "It gives you a good feeling about people."

Of course, there are those voices characterized by Norton as "anti-human," particularly on the far right in the Republican primary race, who have aggressively opposed the entry of Syrian refugees into the United States. GOP front-runner Donald Trump has gone even further, calling for a temporary ban on all Muslims entering the U.S. from abroad, a position which has received solid support from 42% of the conservative electorate. Norton said that kind of rhetoric is rooted in ignorance.

"It goes without saying that the average seventh grader can tell you that America is a country that by definition was made up of immigrants and people creating or providing circumstances to seek a better life," Norton said. And while he acknowledges that some anti-refugee sentiment is borne out of genuine anxieties, Norton said, "I don't think politicians who engage in that kind of fear mongering are acting on that anxiety. I think they're acting very cynical."

"To be super clear, I didn't have any kind of political objective with this and it's not almost in any way a political act or political commentary," he added. 

Norton co-founded CrowdRise in 2010, and contributors have since donated more than $300 million to charities through the site, which was ranked as one of the top 25 best global philanthropy organizations by Barron's. He highlighted the innovative techniques the site has employed to get the donations directly to recipients, in ways that differentiate CrowdRise from similar sites like GoFundMe and Kickstarter.

"It’s not like major philanthropy has to be 80% institutional or major donors and 20% grassroots," said Norton. "I think CrowdRise has always had faith in the conviction that the grassroots might actually be the biggest part." 

As a celebrity, Norton is aware of the pitfalls of attaching his name to a project like this. "You have to be careful and you have to be judicious. I think the way you articulate things is important," he said. "I was just moved by this guy’s story and by his spirit and I felt that it’s a positive thing to rally around. When you feel that way, it’s better to act than not act. We’re in a very fractured political climate and there are people who will try to find an angle, a negative angle, in anything that even touches of these kinds of issues."

However, according to Norton, the response has been overwhelmingly positive and CrowdRise has already been contacted by several other figures, some prominent, about getting involved in helping other families featured in Humans of New York.

"What we will do is try to assist with anyone else who wants to try to double down on that effort," Norton said. “There was Obama’s response and I did my little thing, and if other people start to do it maybe it becomes kind of a cascading effect.”