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Eight years ago, a documentary about the Ku Klux Klan went viral. A 32-year-old man and his 4-year-old son appear wearing KKK regalia with a black hood. Together they raise the Sieg Heil salute and shout, “White power!”
Now I watch that clip and am filled with fear. The upset father depicted in this work is me, and the 4-year-old boy is my son.
I joined the KKK in 2015 primarily because their racist views merged with mine, a distorted worldview shaped by the prejudice and trauma I experienced growing up in an abusive household. Because it resonated with me. For a year, I was an Imperial Nighthawk, providing security for events and gatherings, and disciplining members. Addiction was common, and many of us used or sold meth.
My lifestyle scared my wife for 5 years. Worried about the future of her children and her family, she turned to Google one day and desperately asked, “How do I get her husband out of a hate group?”
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As a result, she found Mr. Arno Michaelis. Arno Michaelis is the former leader of the world’s largest racist skinhead organization, who is now helping people leave the violent and extremist cult. Arno helped me understand that deep trauma and pain lie at the root of my hatred. I needed healing. And I needed help to accomplish that.
Arno believed Dr. Hevar Mohamed Keri, a Kurdish-Syrian refugee and cardiologist, could provide that. And indeed, having Heval in my life has changed my world forever. His friendship helped me move away from hatred and addiction and helped me become a truly caring husband, father, and friend.
Today, xenophobia is rampant in our country. Watching the news or scrolling through social media, you can feel a palpable fear of the “other.” It’s the anxiety that used to dominate my life. It was rooted in my own unresolved trauma and misconceptions about others, especially Muslims.
But as I sorted through my past and began to build relationships with people in the Muslim community, my world expanded, friendships developed, and I began to heal.
I believe our country can heal too. Most Americans are generally considerate and kind. Despite our differences, we all want the same thing for ourselves and each other: a peaceful society where families can thrive.
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But to truly become your best self, you must also open yourself to those you fear or hate. We must mend the rifts in our communities caused by hatred. We must work together towards peace. If you can do this, anyone can do it.
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, with a violent father. When he was drunk, he would often hit me, sometimes with an extension cord, coat hanger, or even a wrench. After days of coming to terms, he returned home furious with non-whites. He accused non-whites of taking Americans’ jobs and making them dependent on welfare. In truth, he was unable to remain sober long enough to continue his job.
At that time, I was scared of him. However, his bigoted remarks remained in the back of my mind.
I was in high school when the Twin Towers fell, and the attacks provided a convenient outlet for my trauma and self-loathing. I directed my fear and anger at Muslims.
When I was 17, I begged my mom to sign my Army enlistment papers. At age 25, my best friend died in my arms in Afghanistan. After joining the National Guard, I fell in love with a Kentucky woman in 2009 while helping with flood relief efforts.
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But I also broke my hip in a military truck accident. Eventually I became addicted to opiates.
I joined the KKK. The KKK recruited me through online radicalization and acquaintances at work. They gave me a job, took care of my family, and made me feel like I was part of something.
When my wife learned of my new affiliation, she was furious and horrified. But she continued to stick by me despite the urging of those around her. Perhaps that’s why she agreed to meet Arno, whom she met through her Google search.
Still, I was skeptical of Heval. My Islamophobia was severe. And yet, for months, Heval has been texting me saying things like, “Hey, I know about your past and I don’t care,” or “I’m here for you.” I want you to know.” “Hello, there’s anything I can do for you, just tell me.”
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In 2017, I agreed to talk to Heval, hoping he would leave me alone. To my surprise, it clicked right away. We talked about being fathers and having kids the same age. It turns out we both had difficult childhoods. Hevar’s family fled persecution in Syria when he was 12 years old. His family was granted asylum and resettled in Clarkson, Georgia in 2001. He arrived a few days after his 9/11, just as I was finishing my military training. We were both 18 years old.
I was scared because Heval was easy to talk to. I closed my heart, suffering from shame. I never thought I was worthy of kindness or love. But he kept calling. A few months after our first conversation, I agreed to meet Heval in person.
Today we are like brothers. And our relationship completely changed my understanding of Islam. It is not inherently violent, but like most faiths it is full of richness and diversity. Hewal told me about his own Sufi Muslim community and how they value tolerance. I have now experienced this firsthand at Hevar’s Ramadan celebration and iftar dinner.
Ten years ago, I would have never imagined attending these dinners. It has now become a family tradition for me to attend this event with my wife, 9-year-old daughter, and 12-year-old son. We all love and cherish experiences like this.
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I am no longer the hateful man in that viral video. I am an ambassador for the city of Clarkston, which is home to refugees from nearly 60 countries. I am also an interventionist with Parents for Peace, helping deradicalize skinheads and Klansmen. I offer them compassion and patience. That’s exactly what Heval offered me. He is a heart doctor, but he healed my heart more than anything.
I personally appreciate policies that welcome people like Heval. Without them, my life would be very different today. We know we live in a divided country. I know many people are angry and afraid. But if Heval taught me anything, it’s this. That despite all adversity, we can help each other heal.
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