An Open Letter: A Christian Against Islamophobia

Dear Mr. Lynch,

I’m writing today, as a retired Intelligence Officer and current interfaith/intercultural advocate, to challenge your statement that “Islam is a domestic enemy of America.”  I will not address the sourcing of your social media post, other than to note that it appears (from open source) that individual’s knowledge of Islam may be self-taught.  In addition, perhaps you are not aware that a well-funded anti-Muslim propaganda machine spends hundreds of millions of dollars fanning the flames of Islamophobia.  Regardless, I offer below a different point of view, based on my extensive counterterrorism expertise, my formal study of Islam, and my personal interaction – as a Christian – with Muslims. 

 During my Intelligence career, spanning almost 32 years, I do not recall a single instance when Islam was ever identified as “the enemy” – this includes the years after 9/11 until I retired in December 2014, during which I worked with counterparts in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and South East Asia to identify, penetrate, and disrupt terrorist networks.  Of note, for decades of my career, I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with counterparts around the globe of different faiths and cultural backgrounds, pursuing enemies of mutual concern.  Many of my professional successes – particularly those accomplished with international partners – were not in spite of our differences but BECAUSE of them.  Given this, I was stunned at the level of fear and hatred of “the other”, especially Muslims, that I encountered when my husband and I retired to Greenville, South Carolina.  It quickly became apparent that these attitudes were a result of ignorance.  Having lived, worked, and vacationed in Muslim-majority countries for years, I began drawing on my personal experiences to dispel dangerous myths about Islam voiced within the community, and I accepted a position in an Upstate nonprofit, actively engaged in building bridges between people of different faiths and cultures.

 As I transitioned from public service to work in the interfaith/intercultural arena, I attended classes at a local university and studied Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism.  I was amazed to learn how much these religions have in common, not only with each other but also with Christianity.  During this period, I also read an English translation of the Qur’an, cover to cover, so that I could see for myself what the  Muslims’ holy book ACTUALLY says – paying close attention to the verses often referenced by terrorists and anti-Muslim hate groups.  (In case you are wondering, I do read and speak Arabic well enough to know that the English version of the Qur’an mirrors the original text.)  Pouring through the pages of the Qur’an, I was fascinated to learn that Muslims and Christians believe in the same God and that the Qur’an parallels many of the same stories in the Bible.  More important, I realized that terrorists and anti-Muslim hate groups have hijacked and distorted verses in the Qur’an to fit their evil agendas. 

As I dipped my toe into the waters of the interfaith arena, a colleague suggested that I read a compelling historical account of a Muslim world leader, well-known during the 19th century as one who demonstrated through his actions – to  include risking his life to save thousands of Christians – the power of unifying people of different faiths to combat evil, so that peace could prevail.  In Commander of the Faithful/ The Life & Times of Emir Abd el-Kader, author John W. Kiser tells the gripping story of this Algerian leader, who won not only the trust, respect, and admiration of the men under his command and tribes in the region but also of Europeans who originally feared him and his family, because of stories they had heard of atrocities committed by Arabs and Muslims.  European hearts and minds were changed, and stereotypes about Arabs and Islam were destroyed through PERSONAL INTERACTION and INTERFAITH DIALOGUE.

This leads me to my final point.  Without question, the best “sourcing” of information I can offer you about Islam is drawn from my personal interaction with Muslims.  As noted above, my husband and I (both Christians) spent a considerable amount of time living, working, and vacationing in Muslim-majority countries.  We look back fondly on the warmth and generosity extended to us by Muslims in far away places, as they shared with us their rich traditions and cultures, as well as the peace of Islam.  As we settled into retirement in the Upstate, we sought out the Muslim community and, as expected, the welcome we received rivaled the legendary “Southern hospitality.”  During our four years in Greenville, we attended a number of events hosted by the Islamic Society (open house outreach events, picnics, fundraisers, cultural celebrations, Iftar dinners during Ramadan, etc.), and each time we left inspired by the impressive efforts of these Muslim brothers and sisters to make the Upstate, our country, and the world a better a better place. 

No doubt COVID-19 has put a halt to many of the interfaith efforts in the Upstate.  As South Carolina reopens, I encourage you to attend events hosted by the Islamic Society of Greenville, as a way to meet your Muslim neighbors; perhaps start by attending an outreach event at the mosque in Taylors.  In addition to seeing for yourself how much you have in common with these fellow-Americans, you will learn that their religion is NOT based on violence or oppression but rather peace and surrender to God’s will.  My husband and I not only attended this informative gathering at the mosque ourselves, but we also returned a number of times, bringing friends with us – some of whom had never knowingly spoken to a Muslim before.  It was exciting to see views of Islam change.  If I were still in Greenville, I would offer to accompany you to any of the interfaith events in the area.  My husband and I left the Upstate in 2018, to live closer to our daughters.  I remain in touch with my fellow interfaith/intercultural advocates in South Carolina, however, so I have no doubt that I can find someone to answer any questions you might have about Islam or to provide you with information about upcoming interfaith programs. 

I close by sharing a story about Islamophobia that illustrates both the danger posed by ignorance and the power of knowledge in ending hate.  History has proven that ignorance breeds fear that can lead to hate; left unchecked, that hate can result in violence.  A dear friend of mine found himself on the receiving end of this deadly escalation of ignorance to violence almost 19 years ago.  Days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Mark Stroman – a white supremacist calling himself “the Arab Slayer” – walked into the convenience store where Rais Bhuiyan was working.  Stroman was on a shooting spree and, from close range, he shot Rais (mistaken as an Arab) in the face. 

Rais, the sole survivor of Stroman’s hate, not only forgave his would be killer, but he also fought to prevent his execution.  Drawing on his Islamic faith, Rais launched an inspiring campaign to save  Stroman’s life, exhausting all possibilities.  Although Rais’ efforts failed, before Stroman was executed, he learned about his victim’s tireless efforts to spare his life.  During a phone call with Rais, shortly before his execution, Stroman told Rias, “I love you, bro.  I mean it.”   Among Stroman’s last recorded words were the following: “Hate is going on in this world, and it has to stop. One second of hate will cause a lifetime of pain.”(

I’m proud to serve on the board of World Without Hate, the nonprofit that Rais and his wife Jessica established in their ongoing quest to break the cycle of hate and violence through respectful dialogue.  My passion for their work and my respect for our Muslim brothers and sisters in Greenville drove me to speak out against the dangerous Islamophobic message posted on your Facebook campaign page. 

Respectfully, Marisa W. Barthel

Note: Mark Lynch was running for State Senate, District 12, in South Carolina.

Ahmaud Arbrey: A Victim of America’s Brutal Racism, Intolerance and Hate

It took me several days to finally bring myself to watch the footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder. The images keep replaying in my mind.

Did he feel a cold rush through his spine once he realized these men were pursuing him?

Did his mind race with fear and strategy and confusion… Why is this truck following me? What should I do? Should I keep running?

Did he know he was moments away from dying?

As he was lying on the road, blood pouring from his body, was he begging his God for life?

I’ll never forget the image of Ahmaud Arbery. His lifeless body now placed into the carousel of my mind, with too many other black and brown lives gunned down by hate.

It never escapes me that I am fortunate enough to be here today. I survived the brutal hate of white supremacy. I know what it feels like to be sought out based on the color of your skin. I will never forget seeing myself on the edge of life and death, the images of my loved ones fading in and out, struggling to stay awake, fighting to stay alive. I continue to carry the scars of hate – physically, mentally, and emotionally. While I continue to make peace with my pain, I won’t ever forget what it’s like to be seen as inhuman, unworthy of life, a heartbeat meant for extinction.

I will never understand how seemingly easy it is for people like Ahmaud’s killers to take a human life, but also how acceptable it is in our country. Though I grew up in Bangladesh, I learned about American history, culture and its topnotch educational system. While I was familiar with America’s tangled, racist, violent beginnings, I couldn’t truly understand the magnitude of hate on marginalized communities until I migrated here. I am extraordinarily proud to be an American and there is so much I love about this great country. It is why, after being shot in the face from point blank range, I remained here, rebuilding my life in the very place that tore it apart. And so, it is as a hate crime survivor and an American, that I keep Ahmaud (and all those before and after him) in the forefront of my mind, trying to give them voice through my own.

In addition to sharing my story, advocating for human rights, and speaking out against hate and violence, it is imperative for me and for all of us to keep learning about our country, its history and its people. How can we save black and brown lives from senseless hate, violence, and death if we don’t commit to fully understanding the root cause? How can we create change if we don’t rectify our past first? We must try to imagine ourselves in Ahmaud’s shoes, but we must also deeply reflect upon the slave origins of our country too. Picture yourself for a moment – innocent and free and then captured, beaten, shackled, and shipped across the ocean to a foreign land, forced into hard labor – that is, if you even survived. Abolishing slavery seems so righteous, but if America had truly freed our black brothers and sisters, wouldn’t more of them be able take a leisurely jog in a quiet suburban town without losing their life on the middle of the street?

We cannot change the past. But we have the power to shape our future. Those who are guilty of this tragic, barbaric murder must be brought to justice. As a nation, we must collectively demand action – not for a few days or a week – but until equality and justice has prevailed for all. Even then, we cannot stop talking about Ahmaud or victims like him. We must stop thinking that we have the luxury of moving on. Ahmaud’s family doesn’t have such privilege. I can’t simply stop the nightmares or wish away the bullet fragments embedded in my skull. Instead of forgetting, it is high time for us to be brutally honest with ourselves. America suffers from its racist, intolerant, and hateful past; a history that continues to take the lives of innocent, unarmed black men, but WE have the power to repair it.

With empathy, and our sincerest intentions, we have the power to eradicate racism, intolerance, hate, and violence from our communities, and truly move forward as one, united and peaceful nation. It’ll be far from easy and it won’t be swift. But, if we fail to finally rise up and protect the sanctity of life, how can we possibly call ourselves the land of the brave and the home of the free.

~ Rais Bhuiyan, Founder, World Without Hate

We Really Are More Alike Than Different

Imagine a world without hate…a world where people seek opportunities to understand and empathize with those they believe are different than them…a world where people focus on similarities not differences… 

Growing up in the Bible Belt, I was surrounded by people who fostered an “us versus them” rather than inclusive attitude. Racially charged jokes were not uncommon, interracial dating and marriage were viewed as a violation of God’s law, and those who worshiped differently than our Baptist church (Jews, Muslims, Catholics, Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, to name a few) were deemed sinners who would not fare well on Judgement Day. 

Shortly after moving North to attend a large public university, it was clear to me that I was more like “them” than the “us” of my youth. My closest friends in college included students from many ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds. I was intrigued by our differences and free – for the first time in my life – to challenge the racism and bigotry that I saw. (As a kid in my family, questioning an adult’s belief was often seen as “being sassy” and disrespectful.) 

For the next three decades, I worked shoulder-to-shoulder with counterparts around the globe of different faiths and cultural backgrounds. Many of my professional successes – particularly those accomplished with international partners – were not in spite of our differences but BECAUSE of them. Given this, I was stunned at the level of fear and hatred of “the other”, especially Muslims, that I encountered when I retired. It quickly became apparent that these attitudes were a result of ignorance. Having lived, worked, and vacationed in Muslim-majority countries during my career, I began drawing on my personal experiences to dispel dangerous myths about Islam voiced within my community, and I accepted a position in a nonprofit, actively engaged in building bridges between people of different faiths and cultures. 

It was during this time that I met Rais and Jessica Bhuiyan, of World Without Hate. I was not only inspired by Rais’ story of forgiveness but also his passion to break the cycle of hate and violence. Many will recall the “Arab” shootings in Texas, days after 9/11. Rais, mistaken as an Arab, is a survivor of that hate-filled violence. Remarkably, he not only forgave the man who shot him; he fought to save his life. Rais and his wife Jessica have dedicated their lives to teaching others the importance of forgiveness, compassion, empathy, understanding, and acceptance. With hate crimes on the rise, their mission is more important today than ever before. 

Giving to World Without Hate will allow this nonprofit to partner with community level advocates and anti-hate organizations across the USA to tackle the roots of hate, by creating human encounters that foster respectful, honest conversations. Remember, ignorance breeds fear that can lead to hate; left unchecked, hate can lead to violence.

Marisa Barthel, World Without Hate Board Member

Reflections on My 18th Rebirthday

Today, on International Peace Day, I am also commemorating my Rebirthday. Eighteen years ago, I faced extreme evil, and my life in America changed forever. I vowed not to define myself by that act of horror, but to respond by making a difference and helping others. 

Though not in Manhattan or Washington D.C., I am a victim, and a survivor of the terror that reigned down upon our country on Sep 11, 2001. My attacker, who shot me in the face and killed two others, blamed me and my kind for 9/11, and said America was no place for Muslims,… until he learned about the international campaign I was leading to try and save his life from Texas death row. He hated me when he didn’t know me, but in the end called me, brother; and said he loved me before he was executed. His last words were “Hate has to stop. Hate causes a life time of pain.” Today, I see the reflection of his pain everywhere. 

It is time for us all to admit where we are heading as a country, and as the human race. Hate crimes, gun violence, anti-immigrant rhetoric…extremism of all kinds are on the rise. Though we vowed, “never again” long ago, it appears we haven’t learned anything from history. The war on terror has caused and produced more terror, providing excuses for far too many to label people we don’t know as a threat, making it easy to persecute, suppress, and treat fellow humans as lesser than. We spend billions searching for life in space, but lives on earth continue being destroyed by unnecessary, unjust wars, violence, hunger, and disease. When millions of people dream of having access to clean water, or a roof over their head, desperate to live life with dignity, we spend even more in the arms trade and on new technology to control and kill.

All mothers hope to see their children flourish in a safe, loving and kind world. What can we do to save humanity and restore the world? Building peace is the answer. Peace begins within each of us, in our hearts & minds, at home first. We need to teach our children, and remind one another, to respect everyone equally, as human first, regardless of our differences. You may not like me or become my friend, but you can respect me as you want to be respected. No one is born to hate or to be violent. People are either taught to hate or go through challenges in their lives desensitizing them to others’ right to life, liberty, freedom, and happiness. That’s why we must teach our children kindness, compassion, empathy, and forgiveness before they are exposed to racism, intolerance, hate and violence. 

The lessons I’ve learned from my traumatic experience, and the painful journey I’ve taken, moved me from a place of pain on the deepest level, to a place of peace and hope for a kinder, just, and more accepting world. There is not a single day that goes by that I am not reminded of and impacted by my brutal attack, but I continue to make peace with my pain.  

Today, as a human rights advocate, peace activist, non-profit leader, and motivational speaker, I have the opportunity to try and combat the hate and violence that has plagued our country, our world for far too long. I founded the organization, World Without Hate, with the hope we might all build bridges among one another, as opposed to walls; that through our powerful human attributes of forgiveness, empathy, and acceptance, we can begin to see how much more we have in common than that which seems to divide us.

On this international day of Peace, and my 18th rebirthday, I urge you to join me, pledging to proactively denounce ignorance, intolerance, and hate, treating all people equally, as humans first, regardless of our visible or invisible diversity. Let’s change the world by changing stereotypes and divisive rhetoric, channeling our actions through empathy, understanding, and acceptance. Let’s create the world we all deserve, a world without violence, a world without victims and a world without hate for all. 

~ Rais Bhuiyan, Founder & President, World Without Hate

Surviving 9/11: Reflections from our Executive Director

Today marks 18 years. September 11, 2001. I will never forget. But, have we begun to forget as a country? As the years roll on, are we pausing less to remember the day terror reigned down on us? Are we allowing the impact of that day to slip away? A new study suggests that Americans move on from mass shootings after just three weeks. This is 18 years.

At the moment I’m feeling numbness. These last few anniversaries I’ve begun to feel farther away, somehow more disconnected. Perhaps because I have created a 3,000-mile barrier between Manhattan and myself. I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps, like my husband has said speaking of his own 9/11 terror, that at some point it feels like your telling someone else’s story.

I’ve always been quick to point out that I was fortunate beyond measure on that incredibly beautiful, sunny New York day. And I truly, truly was. But it doesn’t mean that I have been ok. It doesn’t mean that I don’t STILL suffer from the post-traumatic stress of living and studying in the city during 9/11.

Every anniversary, if I sit still long enough, I can hear the short, chaotic breaths I was gasping, taking me back to third avenue as I ran north with thousands and thousands of others. Not a single taxi, bus, or moving car to be seen. Though the beating of my heart has quieted some, I still catch myself, immediately and unconsciously turning towards the sky when a jet engine seems all too close. I remember the smell. And the ash as it began to collect on my apartment’s windowsill.

September 11th took thousands of lives, robbed families of loved ones, and irreversibly changed more lives than anyone will ever truly know. I never really admitted, or wanted to admit, that fateful September day changed my life forever. I most certainly never thought someday, I’d marry a man whose life was not only nearly taken because of 9/11, but devastatingly, not truly ever recognized or supported as such.

Today, Rais and I have dedicated our entire lives trying to do our part to make a positive, peaceful difference for others. At home, I also strive to bring him peace, safety, and love as well. Just as so much of history has done before, our country’s 9/11 story is selective about who we remember and commemorate. I would certainly not eliminate a soul from the list, simply add other innocent human casualties to our roster. Too many suffered hate in the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks. To this day, so many more continue to be persecuted, harmed, and even killed because of the horrendous terror we experienced on this day, eighteen years ago.

Rais and I are working today, a day of service with thousands of others in the Dallas area. I will also take time to quiet my mind, and my heart, as I try to do each and every September 11th, sending love, light, and hope to all of those who lost their lives, lost their loved ones, have succumbed to illness, or are still battling, as the brave first responders and rescuers they were. I also remember the most touching, awe inspiring ways in which we, Americans and human beings, came together – even in the literal crushing of towers, utter chaos, and debris filled streets. We cared for one another mere minutes, hours, days, weeks, and all these years later.

I urge us all to Never Forget. I plead that we care for one another like we did that day. On this eighteenth anniversary, and always, take a few moments to remember how infinitely precious life is. Recall all those who so senselessly lost their lives. Reflect deeply on the compassion, care, and love shown so instinctively and powerfully by so many of our fellow Americans. And I would also urge you to think deeply about those victims, like my husband, who paid (and continue to pay) so dearly for someone else’s crime. Let’s not only recognize these victims of hate and violence, but embrace them on this day of remembrance, and always.

-Jessica C. Bhuiyan, Executive Director, World Without Hate

White Supremacy in America: Lessons From My Attacker

past week marked the 8th anniversary of my attacker’s execution. Ironically
perhaps, this past week we witnessed the Commander in Chief’s vitriolic racist
attacks of fellow elected officials garnering security concerns for the lives
he has put at risk. I often tell others that I work to make peace with my pain
every day, but unimaginable days like we continue to see from the President of
the United States makes it exceedingly difficult, to say the least.

Speaking with students at Glastonbury High School. Photo: Hartford Courant, Glastonbury, CT, 2012
Photo Credit: MARK MIRKO |

Before pulling the trigger, my attacker asked, “Where are you from?” My brown skin not welcomed in his “white” America. Though narrowly escaping with my life, I still carry more than three dozen bullet fragments in my face and skull and am blind in one eye, these just the physical reminders of America’s racism and intolerance towards me and “my kind” immediately following 9/11.

it seems I’m not welcomed in Trump’s America either. And while he puts elected
officials’ lives in danger, he also puts mine, and so many others like me, in jeopardy
too. In addition to my sight, my attacker took from me my sense of safety and
security. Nearly nineteen years since my shooting and still, the only place I
truly feel safe in America is past the security checkpoint at the airport.
Trump’s hate speech and white supremacist ideology is dangerous. Dangerous for
millions of minorities who proudly call themselves Americans. Dangerous for the
security of our country. Dangerous for the future of our country. Dangerous for
our ideals and all that our country was built upon. Dangerous, alas, for me.

stark difference between my attacker, Mark Stroman, and President Trump is that
Mark transformed. Unfortunately, it was on death row that he felt free, loved,
and respected as a human being. My assailant realized how wrong he was,
especially when he had others around him to support his learning and growth.
Before his execution, Mark said he loved me, thanked me for campaigning to try
and save his life, and called me “brother.” I will always be sorry that for Mark
it took killing two people, nearly taking my life, and ending up on death row
before he was able to know forgiveness, compassion, and empathy and to give it
in return.

This tragedy took a great deal from me, but it also paved the way for my life’s purpose and the organization I created, World Without Hate, as a result. Before his life ended, Mark Stroman’s last words were, “Hate is going on everywhere and it has to stop. Hate causes a lifetime of pain.” I’ve dedicated my life to disrupting hate. Today, I implore President Trump to stop the hate, and the danger he is inciting, and instead unite us all as human beings first. Before it’s too late.

~ Rais Bhuiyan, International speaker & Founder of World Without Hate.

For New Zealand: Humanity & Love Prevails

Like most, we are devastated by the senseless loss of life in Christchurch, New Zealand. The sanctity of life so brutally stolen from the 49 victims has been gut wrenching, dizzying. While we try to process, our hearts remain with everyone affected by this latest, horrific terrorist attack. Forty-nine human beings, in a fraction of a second, lost their lives. Many more wounded, physically, but also, mentally and emotionally as well. Families have been torn apart, forever changed. As this horrendous act virally spread around the world, millions of more people began to suffer. Previous victims of hate-crimes and violence, and their families, are immediately transported back to their own horror and trauma. Muslims, Jews, African-Americans, Sikhs, and all who’ve experienced religious and racial persecution must face fear and panic, once again. It’s hard not to wonder if safety and security are simply no more. It’s hard not to start believing that our most precious commodity, human life, is just not precious enough. Is it truly possible to live in a world without hate?

In the midst of the horrific images, footage, and media reels replaying the terror as it unfolded, stories of love and hope have begun to emerge. Entire communities have come together, literally lining the streets with signs of support for their Muslim neighbors heading to prayer. In the midst of the unspeakable madness inside the Christchurch mosque, one worshiper made the conscious decision to throw his body in front of another, sacrificing his own life for his Muslim brother. More and more courageous acts are coming to light. One of the first victims of this terror attack turned to the shooter as he entered, welcoming him to the mosque. His last word, “Brother.” In our own home, messages of support, friendship, and love have been pouring in, many renewed commitments to ending this unspeakable cycle of hate and violence.

These heroic stories, acts of true compassion, thoughts of kindness and empathy are the reasons why we hold onto hope and have dedicated our lives to doing all that we can to build a world without hate for all. Each day, we recall the final words of Rais’ attacker before his own execution, “Hate is going on everywhere and it has to stop. Hate brings a lifetime of pain.” As a victim of a brutal post 9/11 hate-crime, Rais Bhuiyan, continues to make peace with his pain. We share his story of forgiveness and empathy in hopes of inspiring others to choose the same. Engaging with people throughout the country, and around the world, through empathy education and courageous conversation allows us to shatter the stereotypes, misnomers, and even fear perpetuated by some of our leaders, media, and misinformed citizens. This year, World Without Hate is embarking on a National Empathy Ride, visiting communities across the country in hopes of dialoguing with our fellow Americans in a safe, comfortable, and respectful atmosphere so that we may dismantle the myths of the “other,” addressing questions and fears, developing and strengthening the capacity to see each other as human beings first, and paving the way for peace, understanding, and acceptance – the cure for hate and violence.

As always, we cannot end the cycle of hate and violence without you. We are all responsible for upholding our most inherent and basic human right – the right to life. Join us on social media to share your photos and tokens of love and friendship, erasing the images and footage of hate, violence, and murder. Reach out to your neighbors, co-workers, and community members who may be experiencing tremendous difficulty during this time or who are going through challenges in their own lives because of the fear and hate they carry in their hearts, whether knowingly or unknowingly. Visit a religious institution different from yours to experience how truly welcoming and warm these houses of worship and their members truly are. Rise up and act with courage, when you witness a post, a moment, or an incident of ignorance, fear, or hate, regardless of who the victims are.

Above all, commit to doing your part to change the narrative and to combat hate and violence for the long term. Today and tomorrow we may still hear about this latest act of terror, but it will all soon fade, and we will resume our regularly scheduled programming, until the next time. We don’t stand a chance of erasing “the next time” if we don’t work together and demand change for once and for all. We have a long way to go, there is no doubt, but together, we can create the world we all deserve – a world without violence, a world without victims, and a World Without Hate.

To all those who have lost their lives or suffered at the hands of this evil and hate-fill attack in New Zealand, and around the world — for you, we will never, ever give up.

With love and light,

Rais and Jessica Bhuiyan
World Without Hate

From Empathy to Action: Outcomes of Empathy Ambassador Leadership Training

Before learning about World Without Hate’s Empathy Ambassador Leadership Training, I found myself getting frustrated. I knew I had a drive, a passion, and an idea, but I didn’t know how to get started or find others who might want to dive in with me. I also knew I couldn’t be the only one feeling stuck with a goal in mind trying to make our corner of the world a little brighter.

I jumped at the opportunity to participate in this training. I had been straining to tangibly create a project in service to a population I hold close to my heart: individuals in transition from incarceration.

Jessica, WWH Executive Director,and I had developed a quick friendship a few months after I had moved to Seattle last winter. As she started telling me about the Empathy Ambassador Leadership Training, I felt relief and confirmation that I might be able to collaborate with other action-oriented minds and mobilize.

In the two and a half day training, I met many open hearts, curious learners, and people who believe we can be doing better for our communities. Most importantly, I felt these people were prepared to actually do something about it. On the final day, we were tasked with building actionable plans for our Empathy Projects.

I stood up and explained my idea of creating Reentry Resource Backpacks: bags full of basic human needs, community resources, clothing, a transportation card, etc. These backpacks would be given to individuals immediately upon release from incarceration to make those first few days back in the community a little easier. Each backpack would carry a handwritten letter from a fellow community member offering welcome and support in their time of transition. The idea quickly grew into a team of Empathy Ambassadors and evolved into “The Welcome Backpack Project.”

A month after the training, our Empathy Ambassador team has raised over $2,000 and has collected personal and corporate donations for hygiene products, backpacks, reusable water bottles, and community resource booklets. We have teamed up with two local nonprofits also dedicated to supporting formerly incarcerated individuals: Living with Conviction and Interaction Transition. Our next phase is to assemble 30 Welcome Backpacks, each backpack valued at $63.

I believe many people are thirsty to encourage change by supporting the causes they are passionate about, but like me, they may not know how to do that in a meaningful way. World Without Hate Empathy Projects are becoming that missing piece: empowering people to join or create tangible service projects working to brighten our corners of the world.

Stay tuned for Part II for outcomes of The Welcome Backpack Project!

~ Kelsey Engstrom, Participant & WWH Advisory Board Member

On the 17th Anniversary of 9/11: A Survivor’s Call for Unity

On the 17th Anniversary of 9/11: A Survivor’s Call for Unity

Like most Americans, each September 11th, I reflect on how much our country lost that day; the thousands of lives shockingly, and suddenly taken; and how quickly fellow comrades rushed to aid victims. That fateful day, seventeen years ago, brought out the best in our fellow citizens, but tragically, also revealed the worst.

On this September 11th, ironically perhaps, I will be lying in the hospital as my doctors perform sinus surgery, my second in two years. Although not in Manhattan, or Washington D.C. on September 11th, I am a victim, and a survivor, of the terror that reigned down upon our country in 2001. 

I watched, as so many had, the terror that unfolded that sunny September day. I too was fixated on the news as jets came barreling toward the twin towers and pentagon. As I watched the towers fall and speculation begin about the perpetrators, I couldn’t help but begin to worry. As the days unfolded, I began to have nightmares – for three nights in a row – waking in panic, having witnessed myself being shot in the convenience store where I worked. It had already begun happening. For many of us, the horror, fear, and violence, just began once the twin towers fell. Customers began harassing, taunting, and threatening me. Four days after September 11th, a shop owner was shot to death at a nearby store.  I was so alarmed I begged my boss to activate the decoy security cameras and keep two clerks on shift. Unfortunately, he did neither.

On September 21st, ten days after 9/11, as rescuers searched debris for signs of life, our country deep in mourning, a newfound fear and uncertainty over us, I began what would be my last day of work as a clerk in South Dallas. Around noon on this stormy Friday, while I remained behind the check-out counter, a man wearing a baseball cap, bandana, and sunglasses, carrying a double-barrel shot gun slung along his side, walked in. As he pointed the gun directly at my face, he asked, “Where are you from?” Before I could utter anything but “Excuse me?” he pulled the trigger. From point blank range.

As I reflect upon 9/11 again this year, this time while in the hospital, I remain grateful for my second chance at life. As I approach my ‘ReBirthday’, I celebrate the purposeful life my God afforded me that afternoon while I lie in my own blood, alone, on a convenience store floor. On my deathbed I vowed that should I survive, I would live each day helping others, and as a human rights advocate, peace activist, non-profit leader, and motivational speaker, I have the opportunity to try and combat the hate and violence that has plagued our country for far too long. I founded the nonprofit, World Without Hate, with the hope we might all build bridges among one another, as opposed to walls; that through our own powerful human attributes of forgiveness, compassion, empathy, understanding, and acceptance, we can begin to see how much more we have in common than that which seems to divide us.  I see 9/11 not only as a tragic day in American history, but also a time of unity, solidarity, and coming together, despite our differences. Did anyone hesitate because of skin color before running into the burning towers to help others escape? Did anyone pause to ask another about their religion before scooping them into their arms and carrying them further to safety?

While in surgery, my doctors will try to remove some of the bullet fragments I still carry. Constant reminders of my attack, nearly three dozen pepper the right side of my face and skull. The shooting also left me blind in my right eye. The physical disabilities, perhaps, pale in comparison to the mental and emotional toll my hate crime has taken. For a survivor like me, great comfort comes when I have the opportunity to speak to or work with my fellow citizens as they come together, taking initiative to understand and accept each other, finding ways to help make strides for a peaceful, safe, and united nation for all.

It is high time for us to pause and reflect, to truly see where we are heading. The terrorist attacks took thousands of lives, destroying countless others, including mine. As a nation, we come together each year, rightfully so, to remember and show support for the victims and survivors. However, innocent victims of post 9/11 hate crimes remain unnoticed and unsupported. From 2001 to 2016, half a million people lost their lives from gun violence in this country. Hate crimes are once again on the rise, increasing by 12% in 2016-17 alone. Enemies of our freedom and democracy are sowing seeds of radical, racial conflict, dividing us through our own social media, revolting rhetoric and intolerant behavior, where blaming the “other” has become the norm. This is not who we are; this is NOT our America.

As we come together to pay our respects on this seventeenth anniversary, I urge us all to remember the thousands upon thousands of people who protected, saved, and comforted one another. Recall, in the midst of your mourning, the strength in unity and patriotism shared during such chaos and unknown. We can indeed come back together. The lessons I’ve learned from my traumatic experience, and the journey I’ve taken, moved me from a place of pain on the deepest level, to a place of hope for a kinder, just, and more accepting world.

Join me, in honoring all those lost and affected on this tragic anniversary, pledging to proactively denounce ignorance, intolerance, and hate, treating all people equally, as humans first, regardless of our visible or invisible diversity. Let’s show the rest of the world that we are indeed stronger, and united as one nation, just as we demonstrated seventeen years ago.

Rais Bhuiyan, a post 9/11 hate crime survivor is the founder of World Without Hate, an international speaker, & the subject of The True American, Murder & Mercy in Texas.

Sara & Finn: Big heart in every day kindnesses

Allow me to share a story about this very special person. He’s 12. We’re in our last season of commuting to school together after seven awesome years.

On Monday morning, I was feeling groggy & slow. When he asked why, I explained that for much of his dad’s & my life together, outside of the time when we did 4:30/5am turn-taking wake-ups with little people, his dad, got up each morning, brewed coffee, & brought it to me in bed. Yes, I know I’m spoiled. I explained that his dad isn’t one for big grand gestures, we aren’t great at the grown-up birthday or Christmas gifts, but I prefer these everyday kindnesses over any one-time big thing. Well, this week his dad’s longtime early workout class had changed its start time (grrrrrrr) & it got him home too late for brewing coffee before we needed to leave the house. Yeah, I’m capable of brewing coffee, I’m just not particularly good at it & just haven’t had the practice. We went along with our day.

That evening while sitting in our front room, I heard this guy ask his dad to show him how to make coffee. On his own. His idea. He then set his morning alarm 15 minutes earlier than he normally gets up. The following morning, he went downstairs, ground the beans, brewed coffee, & frothed milk. And then he walked it upstairs in my favorite mug. It was without a doubt, the best mug of coffee I’ve ever had. I have felt its warmth in my chest throughout these past days. Oh, how I love him so.

~Sara Armstrong about her son Finn, New Haven, CT