Why Mercy Matters by Zahed Haftlang, co-author of I, WHO DID NOT Die: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption and Fate
I am not a strong swimmer. To the person standing onshore, it must have looked like I had a death wish when I leaped from an Iranian merchant ship into the choppy waters of Vancouver’s English Bay. But they would be dead wrong; I jumped overboard that day in 2001 because I very much wanted to live.
Only another accidental refugee can understand this level of desperation. It was my last attempt to live with dignity, the same basic human need that is forcing thousands to flee Syria and Iraq today. It’s an old story, and every immigrant has one, but what I wish the new U.S. President understood is that people like me from Muslim countries are running from the terrorism, not bringing it. The people you see on TV fleeing ISIS refuse to take up arms in the religious wars strangling the Middle East, and for that they become the persecuted. They give up everyone they know and everything they possess, just for a chance to live and speak freely in a country without violence. Lumping us all together based on a religion or a country means you will never hear our stories. And stories are the only weapons against ignorance and intolerance. If you know us, you can’t fear us.
The invisible arms that pushed me overboard belong to my country, Iran. It took twenty years for our relationship to sour, but it all began in 1982 when, as a thirteen-year old child soldier, I refused to kill a man in the name of Allah.
I still adore the Iran of my boyhood — her Persian poets, her pistachios, and her hillsides where my friends and I spent hours trying to knock each other’s kites out of the sky. Unbeknownst to me, in the late 1970s I was living in the most volatile place in the world — on the border between Iran and Iraq, the flashpoint between two brutal dictators. I was eleven in 1979 when the Ayatollah Khomeini was swept into power by the Islamic Revolution, a time that stood out to me mainly because Maman and my sisters suddenly had to wear head coverings. Not long after that, Saddam Hussein sent warplanes, and one day while I was playing hooky at the movie theater, my elementary school was bombed. I can still see and smell the crumpled bodies of my friends in the rubble and remember thinking that should have been me.
For the next couple of years, the bombs kept coming and our Supreme Leader was calling on everyone, young and old, to join the fight. A friend and I walked into the local mosque and volunteered for the Basij youth militia, to join the Holy War against Iraq. We wanted revenge, sure, but what was really motivating my thirteen-year-old mind was the promise of a John Wayne adventure, giving me the perfect excuse to leave home and escape my father’s violent temper. What the mullahs who recruited us didn’t say was that boys like me would be used as human minesweepers, sent unarmed into the battlefields first to detonate the bombs and clear a safe path for our armed soldiers. So many of us child soldiers were blown up that the sand turned pink. I don’t know why I survived.
My training lasted two weeks, and then I was sent to the Iranian town of Khorramshahr, which our men had recently recaptured from the Iraqis after a fierce battle. My sergeant ordered me to search all the underground bunkers and shoot any Iraqi soldiers still alive. I had never killed a man before. I prayed everyone would be dead, and all were, except one badly wounded Iraqi. In that moment, I had a choice — to do what I felt was right or what my country felt was right. I chose mercy. I hid the man behind some corpses and secretly nursed him back to health over three days, eventually getting him to a field hospital, where he recuperated before being sent to a prisoner of war camp.
I would spend another six years in the war. I was sent to Halabja to bury the bodies of the Kurdish civilians who had been gassed by Saddam Hussein. I was shot several separate times, hit with shrapnel, and eventually captured by the enemy just hours before the war ended. I spent more than two years in captivity, where I suffered such unimaginable physical and psychological torture that I developed a tremor and was left with a broken nose and thumbs.
I returned to a decimated country, its neighborhoods and oil refineries in ruins. Beggars crowded the roads and the intellectuals had fled. Women were kept indoors, and there was no more music. The war had broken me, too. I suffered nightmares and persistent anxiety. I couldn’t keep a job, always arguing with the company bosses who insisted that I participate in mandatory prayers. I had seen the dark underbelly of Islamic fundamentalism, and I wanted no part of it. I had become an outcast in my own country for forming my own thoughts. When I refused to pray on the merchant ship, where I had a job in the engine room, my superiors promised to put me back in prison once we docked in Iran.
So I jumped. I leaped into the freezing sea because I wanted my wife and daughter, back home in Iran, to decide for themselves if they wanted to wear a head cover. I jumped because I believe women and men are equal. Actually, in some ways, I believe that women are immortal because they give birth. I jumped because I believe that every person has a right to choose their own religion, or no religion, without interference.
As I flailed in the waves, a Canadian kayaker spotted me and pulled me ashore.
If it weren’t for that stranger, and for the kindness of the Canadian government that helped me with a temporary apartment and a little money to get on my feet, I would have probably become a criminal and stolen what I needed to survive. I would have become exactly what today’s political fear-mongers want you to think when you see a foreigner with dark hair and dark eyes and a Middle Eastern name. But instead of a closed border, I was met with mercy.
I am a Canadian citizen now, and so are my wife and two children. I own an auto shop in Vancouver, but a month hasn’t gone by in the last sixteen years that I haven’t worried about how I was going to pay the rent. Being an immigrant means starting over from zero. I work seven days a week, twelve hours a day, just to make sure my family doesn’t have to worry about safety, food, and warmth, like I did. Immigrants have to work twice as hard because we have no assets, no friends, and no power in our host country. I accept this. I wish the leader of the free world understood this, too.
I accept this because every day when I come home from work covered in grease, I find my young son playing video games, shooting at the screen with his controller with absolutely no idea what I see when I watch him playing war. His innocence makes me cringe and brings me incredible joy at the same time. My daughter is studying medicine at the University of British Columbia and cooking in a restaurant. My family is safe and happy, and I live for that moment I cross the threshold at night and their faces light up.
When I saw the news footage of Middle Eastern immigrants stranded at U.S. airports, I felt déjà vu. I was reminded of two bullies, Khomeini and Hussein, using charismatic words and no evidence to whip their followers into doing their hateful bidding. I also felt sorry for the Americans because now it’s going to be harder for them to travel, too. People from the Middle East will assume, just because of your country of origin, that you share the Trump Administration’s distrust of Muslims. Hatred spreads hatred, unless we go against our tribal natures and insist on grace.
I know first-hand the power of human kindness. In the months after the kayaker pulled me to shore, I became despondent; terrified I wouldn’t get on my feet and ever see my family again. My panic turned to suicidal thoughts, and I went to see a counselor at the Vancouver Association for the Survivors of Torture. An Iraqi man walked into the lobby and sat next to me. Something about him felt familiar. We talked and discovered we’d been in the same war, in the most brutal and bloody battle, on the same day. Our voices rose as we got more excited, inherently knowing where our stories would intersect. It was him–the stranger I had saved in the bunker twenty years ago. Finally, I got to ask him his name. Najah, he said. Najah Aboud.
I suddenly had a lifeline. And in that moment, I knew that everything, eventually, was going to be all right because something in the universe was looking out for me. Something was confirming that the choice I made as a child soldier to grant mercy was the right one.
Since then we have become as inseparable as brothers. If that’s not God, I don’t know what is.
Zahed Haftlang was just thirteen when he joined Iran’s Basij paramilitary, where he spent six years fighting in the Iran-Iraq war. After capture by the Iraqi army, he spent nearly two and a half years as a POW. He lives in Vancouver with his wife and children where he owns an auto repair shop. Haftlang and Najah Aboud, the former Iraqi soldier whose life he saved, are the co-authors of I, WHO DID NOT DIE: A Sweeping Story of Loss, Redemption and Fate (Regan Arts), written with Pulitzer Prize-nominated writer Meredith May. For more information, please visit www.reganarts.com.