He was tortured in a Syrian prison but now this Canadian father is getting his life back

By Colby Itkowitz

Maher Arar, who was falsely accused of terrorism ties in 2002, is getting his life back. Photo: Courtesy of Maher Arar / The Washington Post
Maher Arar, who was falsely accused of terrorism ties in 2002, is getting his life back. Photo: Courtesy of Maher Arar / The Washington Post

Nearly 15 years ago, a Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, was forced by Syrian prison guards to live in a dark, three-foot-wide, six-foot-deep underground cell where he spent his days alone, listening to the screams of other tortured prisoners. He was often taken out for beatings with an electrical cable and threatened with worse.

Arar, who was born in Syria, had been secretly turned over to the notoriously brutal Bashar al-Assad government in 2002 by U.S. authorities, after he passed through John F. Kennedy International Airport on his way home to Canada from a business trip to Tunisia. It was the height of post-9/11 anxiety, and U.S. authorities suspected he had ties to al- Qaida, which he strongly denied.

After 10 months in prison, however, the Syrian government released him, saying they found no evidence of any ties to terrorism. Canada, which had worked hard with human rights groups.

Arar became a worldwide cause celebre for what many at the time saw as the abuses of the Bush administration's "global war on terror." He testified via video before a U.S. congressional committee. He gave speeches and interviews recounting his abuse.

And then, for several years, Arar stopped talking about it altogether. To rehash it reignited all his fears and hurt. Even still he tries not to read a lot of news; all the world's suffering brings back what he endured.

Before Arar's life was upended at 32 years old, he was a husband with two young children who was laser-focused on his career in computer engineering. He was entrepreneurial and dedicated, singularly focused on his own success and future. Nearly a year in a Syrian prison didn't steal those dreams, but it did readjust his priorities. He no longer wants to build a business just for the money or personal gain. He wants to create something with purpose. His bio on Twitter says: "Let us together make the world a better place to live in."

So Arar has developed a new app called CauseSquare, which allows charities and nonprofits to directly communicate with donors who have downloaded it.

"I never wanted to be a victim or the tortured one, I wanted to be someone else," he said in a recent phone interview. "The arrest came and changed my life . . . What I am doing now is going back to my original dream."

Geared toward engaging millennials, it modernizes giving, and the organizations can send notifications to donors about its work and where the money is going. People can act on their "impulsive altruistic desire" by making a donation with one touch on their smartphone. The app also turns giving into a sort of game, where users get points or badges for donating, and can share that on social media to show their support for the causes.

The app, which launches at the end of May, currently has 15 charities signed on to test it. Because people, particularly of the millennial generation, operate most of their lives through their mobile devices, Arar is convinced the future of charitable giving is through an app like his.

His business partner, Mohamed Maamoun, who first met Arar in 2006 over table tennis at a mutual friend's house, described him as a passionate visionary, who is easy going and "approachable with a smile."

Still, it hasn't been easy for Arar to return to a normal life. Though he was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Canadian government and was widely supported by an outraged public - Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., said, "It's beneath the dignity of this country to send someone to another country to be tortured" - Arar initially struggled to find work. He believes he remains on the United States' No Fly List - something he would only know for sure if he tried to fly to America, which he has no interest in doing.

His new venture is an effort to finally move beyond being the man who 14 years ago was unjustly suspected of terrorism.

As he tried to put his life back together, stories in the news would trigger harrowing nightmares of those months held in the grave-like cell. He shrugged off the symptoms. The burning in his chest he attributed to heartburn, not realizing it was a common physical manifestation of anxiety, he said. Finally, at the urging of family he saw a doctor who told him the trauma, even when he was not consciously thinking of it, was still taking a psychological toll. His doctors finally convinced him to take anti-depressants, which he said have helped.

He's strived to let go on any animus. He attributes his ability to forgive to his Muslim faith and to his effort to understand what happened to him from the perspective of the U.S. government.

"That's how I get my inner peace. Sometimes I try to put myself in the shoes of the people who sent me to Syria," he said. "After all, it's their country, they have to protect it, they can't take a chance. That it is how I accept what happened to me. Regardless of what injustice was done to me, this is the best way to understand human beings, you have to understand what their pains are, what solution they are trying to look for."

"This is extremely powerful," he added. "Once you put yourself in the shoes of others, you'll be much more motivated to forgive."

- Washington Post

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