Letter by letter

Sophia Topper
September 17, 2015
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

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Omar Khadr is a polarizing figure, considered by some to be a terrorist and others a child soldier. But English professor David L. Clark sees a deep connection between the young men and women he teaches at McMaster and Mr. Khadr, one that he hopes to foster.

Mr. Khadr was born in Toronto in 1986, and spent his early life between Canada and Pakistan. He was captured at the age of 15 in Afghanistan following a firefight with the American Military in which Mr. Khadr allegedly killed a medic. He was held at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay, where he became a victim of torture.

But he was also busy working to upgrade his middle school level education with help from a team of professors from The King’s College, a private Christian university in Edmonton, Alberta, who devised a curriculum and visited him in Guantanamo. Since his extradition back to Alberta in 2013, the visits have increased to at least once a week and Mr. Khadr has reached a Grade 12 level education.

In May 2015, McMaster’s Prof. David L. Clark wrote a letter to President Patrick Deane, requesting that the university hold a spot for Mr. Khadr. The letter received little response from the university until the request drew the attention of the media, and Prof. Clark was invited to meet with President Deane. That meeting, described by Prof. Clark as “a very robust conversation to say the least,” resulted in an invitation to Prof. Arlette Zinck of The King’s College, one of Mr. Khadr’s primary tutors, to visit campus. Prof. Clark regarded this as a promising first step in a larger process.

This letter also had another kind of response: hate mail. “There’s nothing like opening up your email in the morning and having someone scream at you,” said Prof. Clark. “The letters that came to me demonstrated that a whole lot of education needed to take place first,” a challenge Prof. Clark is taking on.

He has devised a second initiative, “The Hospitality Project”, that aims to address that issue by asking students to write five hundred public letters to Omar Khadr in the spirit of “hospitality, friendship, dignity, respect and solidarity.”

He is optimistic about the relationship between young people and Mr. Khadr.

“99 percent of positive responses I got to the first initiative came from students, and that’s what lead to the second initiative,” said Prof. Clark. The website was launched on Sept. 9, and already Professor Lisa Farley at York University has tweeted an invitation to her first year class of about 300 students to take part in “The Hospitality Project”. The reaction at McMaster remains to be seen.

“I’m holding my breath,” said Prof. Clark. While he anticipates a great response from students, he admits it is possible that their letters, which will be signed and published, may attract backlash. “They won’t have a return address [but] of course it’s quite possible that… students who write [the letters] will be subjected to criticism.”

In the age of the internet a return address is hardly needed to identify a writer, but Prof. Clark believes that this risk is outweighed by the benefits to Mr. Khadr, and the overall role of the university in building peace.

“I want the Canadian public to see that students too are part of this work towards a more democratic and humane polity,” he said.

Photo Credit: David L. Clark

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