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Milana Vayntrub — 'Lily' from Those AT&T Ads — Has a Message for Syrian Refugees

Milana Vayntrub, instantly recognizable from a series of AT&T ads, is trying to mobilize the world to help a group of people she barely knows.
Image: Milana Vayntrub as Lily for AT&T
Milana Vayntrub as Lily for AT&TAT&T

You know her as "Lily" from a series of AT&T commercials — the bubbly young woman who has the best deals on a new iPhone or a family plan offering unlimited talk and text.

But to Syrian refugees, she is an unlikely champion.

Image: Milana Vayntrub as Lily for AT&T
Milana Vayntrub as Lily for AT&TAT&T

Milana Vayntrub, who plays the popular ad character, is trying to mobilize the world to help a group of people she barely knows — but with whom she has an emotional connection.

To that end, the Los Angeles-based actress has set up a website with the ironic name of Can't Do Nothing that has already raised thousands of dollars for refugee relief and convinced more than a million people to join her efforts by giving their time or money.

Related: Bombing in Syria's Aleppo Kills 20, Knocks More Hospitals Out of Service

With the election of Donald Trump, who has vowed to block Syrians from the United States, Vayntrub says there’s even more need to "do something now."

“I think a lot of Americans forget that they are not originally from here, that somebody in their past was a refugee,” she told NBC News.

Vayntrub, who is Jewish, would know. She was 2 when her family fled religious persecution in the former Soviet Union and started a new life in Los Angeles.

But the escaping Jews back then did not face the strident opposition the Syrians face now. And Vayntrub said her inbox is often jammed with angry emails from Trump supporters and others.

“If this election has shown us anything it’s that this country is divided into two groups that don’t understand each other,” she said.

Vayntrub also admitted that she’s gotten pushback from her father, Alexander, who she says is “not so keen” about what she is doing.

“He’s got conflicting perspectives of Muslims,” she said. “He understands that refugees are not so different from us. But he also has a lot of fear.”

In 1989, the Vayntrubs were part of the wave of Jews who fled the Soviet Union for the west. They were from Uzbekistan, then a mostly-Muslim Soviet Republic two years away from declaring independence from Moscow.

“There was a lot of discrimination against the Jews at that time,” she said. “Both my parents were born there but we were considered outsiders. We had some family in LA who offered to help us get there. So when they got the chance to leave, my parents took it."

One of their first stops was a transit camp in Ladispoli, Italy, where the toddler made her television debut when a FOX News reporter asked her where she was headed.

“America,” she said, nestled in her father’s arms.

And off to America they went. The family settled in West Hollywood where she grew up “feeling like an American.”

At age five, Vayntrub got her start in show business appearing in Mattel Barbie commercials. Later, she studied with the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improv comedy group, and began landing parts in movies like “Life Happens” and the TV show “Silicon Valley.” She also helped launch the YouTube comedy channel Live Prude Girls that made her an indie darling.

Then in November 2013, AT&T picked Vayntrub to be their Lily.

It was in January, while on a vacation in Greece with her dad, that Vayntrub stumbled across her cause. Thousands of Syrians, desperate to escape the brutal civil war tearing their country apart, were arriving by the raft-full on the island of Lesbos.

Image: Volunteers help migrants and refugees on a dingy as they arrive at the shore of the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos
Volunteers help migrants and refugees on a dingy as they arrive at the shore of the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey on March 20, 2016.Petros Giannakouris / AP

Moved by their plight, Vayntrub canceled her flight home and headed there to document the unfolding tragedy.

“I didn’t know what I could do but I knew I couldn’t sit idly by,” she said in the video on her site. “I do know what it’s like to be an outsider.”

Vayntrub admits that until she saw first hand what was happening, the Syrian refugee crisis had not been on her radar. And when she realized the enormity of the tragedy, “I felt pretty helpless.”

So once she was back home, Vayntrub got busy and launched Can’t Do Nothing.

“It’s been a tremendous help to us,” said Lexi Shereshewsky, executive director of The Syria Fund. “It’s raised thousands of dollars in donations for our organization. And it’s brought in a whole new community of people willing to get involved.”

Asked who Vayntrub is reaching, Shereshewsky said “I imagine it’s a millennial audience.”

Sergie Attar of the Chicago-based Karam Foundation, another nonprofit that aids Syrian refugees, agreed. She said what Vayntrub is doing is even more vital now that Trump is president-elect.

Vayntrub said she has heard from a few Syrians in the U.S., but is pretty sure the greater diaspora has no idea who she is or what she has been doing — and that “it really doesn’t matter.”

“Refugees don’t know the AT&T girl,” she said. “It’s not a part of their reality. It’s a totally different world.”