'This is who I am': the reinvention of Maher Arar

Maher Arar, the Canadian engineer who was wrongly accused of having terrorist ties, sent to Syria, imprisoned and tortured, has returned to his entrepreneurial roots with a new venture and a new outlook.

'I'm a victim of rendition, I'm a victim of torture ... I would like to be branded as an entrepreneur'

(Pierre-Paul Couture/CBC)

Maher Arar sits hunched over a laptop in a sparsely furnished basement office — the no-frills headquarters of a new social enterprise he started with three co-founders.

The fledgling business has all the hallmarks of a bootstrap startup. In fact, Arar owns the entire Ottawa office building. 

"We have actually one nice office upstairs, we just don't use it. When you have unlimited resources, you become lazy," laughs Arar, 45. "I'm trying to simulate the situation as if I don't have money to put into this."

In reality, Maher Arar is a multimillionaire, those "unlimited resources" earned in a way no one should have to accumulate wealth.

10 months and 10 days

In September 2002, Maher Arar was returning to Canada from a family holiday in Tunisia. On a stopover at JFK Airport in New York, Arar was detained by U.S. authorities who accused him of being an al-Qaeda operative.

Arar was spirited away to Syria where he was imprisoned in a filthy, rat-infested, grave-sized cell. He was tortured repeatedly.
Maher Arar recounts his ordeal as Monia Mazigh looks on at a news conference in Ottawa on Nov. 4, 2003. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

Back home in Ottawa, Arar's wife Monia Mazigh campaigned for his release alongside a dedicated support network of human rights advocates and sympathetic politicians. The couple's daughter Baraa was only five at the time. Their son Houd just a toddler.

I was ready to confess to anything if it would stop the torture.- Maher Arar

Arar was held in Syria for 10 months and 10 days, during which time he told his captors he'd attended a training camp in Afghanistan, even though it wasn't true.

"I was ready to confess to anything if it would stop the torture," said Arar during a news conference shortly after his return to Canada in 2003. "I've never been anywhere near Afghanistan."

In 2007, after a lengthy public inquiry, Arar got an apology — and $10.5 million — from the Canadian government for its role in his mistreatment.

Maher Arar and Monia Mazigh await the start of the commission of inquiry into Canada's role in Arar's rendition in Ottawa on June 21, 2004. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Arar and Mazigh began focusing their attention on human rights advocacy, while continuing to seek justice from the U.S. administration, a campaign which has so far failed to yield results.

Now, 14 years after his rendition, Arar is putting himself back in the spotlight. But now the circumstances are very different, so this time he's controlling the narrative.

'I never wanted to work for someone else'

Arar can trace his entrepreneurial bent back to his childhood in Damascus.

"I opened up a popcorn stand, you know, during the summer," recalls Arar. "From that age I never wanted to work for someone else."

After graduating with an engineering degree from McGill, Arar became drawn to startup culture, diving deep into technology and spending sleepless nights solving problems.

Entrepreneurship teaches you resilience and that helped me.- Maher Arar

"Yeaha, this is who I am. A lot of people don't know that when I was arrested, I was actually working on a software prototype. I wrote a business plan, a very huge business plan," Arar says, leaning back in his chair, looking relaxed.

"I still keep it. We did present it to the government when I was settling my case."

In those dark days in a Syrian cell, Arar says his entrepreneurial instincts actually helped him keep it together.

"Entrepreneurship teaches you resilience and that helped me," he says. "Everything feeds each other, right? My prior entrepreneur experience fed in to help me survive my ordeal, and my ordeal is helping me back into my entrepreneurship."

'Something that is useful for the world'

Arar says whereas his earlier business ideas were about creating technology and making money, he now has a different angle. His experience in Syria changed his goals, he says.

I just hate when people think of me just as money.- Maher Arar

"I think, yes, my ordeal made me want to create something that is useful for the world. I want to help improve the situation we are in."

Arar and his friends — now colleagues — look like they're having too much fun to be working.
Maher Arar (right) with two of his three CauseSquare co-founders, Mohamed Maamoun (left) and Ahmad Jadayel (centre). (Julie Ireton/CBC)

Last fall, Arar started out as an advisor to the three guys he's teamed up with. He said it was important that they all have good technical skills, but just as important that they like each other.

His multimillion-dollar payout from the government was national news. He knows he's perceived as having deep pockets.

"Obviously, yes, but not with the people I'm working with. I really try to hand-pick whoever I befriend these days. I just hate when people think of me just as money."

'Go-to app' for good causes

Their new company, CauseSquare, has developed a mobile platform aimed at getting millennials to connect with, volunteer for and donate to charities.

"We feel that people should easily connect to their favourite causes … a one-click solution. It should be fun and rewarding. That's how we came up with the idea," Arar says. "We want to be recognized as the go-to app for engaging good causes."

After rendition to Syria, Maher Arar returns to his entrepreneurial roots with the creation of "go-to app for engaging good causes." 1:11

The team provides an example. One of the founders wanted to donate to help Syrian refugees last fall, but with so many agencies involved in the effort, he didn't know where to start. He figured there should be an app for that.

CauseSquare allows users to choose from a menu of causes including education, human rights, justice and independent media. It then narrows the choices to individual charities and non-profits, helping users find the best fit for them.

"We've made our solutions so easy, to the point where we take advantage of short-duration, altruistic impulse. Research shows this altruistic impulse only lasts for eight seconds," Arar says.

The non-profit organizations themselves provide the content: short, edgy videos designed to draw in potential young donors. CauseSquare has added entertaining gaming features to get 20-somethings to pay attention — and come back.

Millennial beta-testers

But when you're in your mid-40s, inventing a software application that will attract millennials is no easy feat. That's why Arar harnessed the advice of his daughter Baraa, now in her second year at Carleton University.

"I do ask Baraa. I trust her opinion and I ask her a lot of questions about what she thinks about the app." Arar has also called on a group of Baraa's 20-something friends to act as the beta-testers.

Maher Arar's daughter Baraa (second from right) with friends Buraidah Razack (left), Dunia Jardat (second from left) and Eric Murphy (right). They're among CauseSquare's millennial beta-testers. (Julie Ireton/CBC)

Baraa, a slam poet who majors in humanities and art history, calls herself CauseSquare's "poster child," though she doesn't see herself a typical millennial.

"It's a bit weird, because I think that I'm different in some ways than people my age and so I might not be the perfect kind of prototype," Baraa says without a hint of self-consciousness.

But then few children have their fathers accused of terrorism, whisked away, tortured, returned home, forced to fight to clear his name — then one day win vindication, turning his family into instant millionaires.

"She's been very much affected by what happened to me," says Arar, taking a deep breath. "She doesn't say it, but I can feel it."

Seeing them together, the mutual admiration is obvious.

"I think that when someone goes through something very life-altering, I think that's much more amplified, that desire to search for something meaningful," Baraa says. "I think my father wants to live a life of meaning and purpose. He wants to be a father, a creator, an engineer and a constructive, contributing person."

Name still elicits mixed response

Arar's business partners share Baraa's admiration for him. But they also recognize Arar's name elicits a mixed response from the outside world. There remain those who associate Arar with alleged terrorism, even after his very public — and thorough — exoneration.

In their early conversations the founders openly discussed whether it was a good idea to have Arar as the company's frontman.
Maher Arar holds a phone displaying the CauseSquare app. (Pierre-Paul Couture/CBC)

Like Arar, Mohamed Maamoun, CauseSquare's chief operating officer, also immigrated to Canada with his parents from the Middle East. 

"It's a pro and con. I think everyone knows," Maamoun says.

Arar nods and weighs in. "There'll be some negative aspect to it. Maybe some people will not want to talk to me."

Among the complications is the fact that for now, Arar won't fly to the United States. He assumes he's still on that country's no-fly list, which rules out travel to visit customers or attend conferences.

Maamoun says, in the end, they all agreed the advantages of having Arar on board outweigh the disadvantages. Of course there is the money he's bringing to the project, but Arar's ongoing relationships with several human rights and justice organizations — potential customers — is also a big plus.

"He was able to get organizations involved, so we're launching with customers versus launching and hoping to get customers," Maamoun says.

'Closing the circle'

One of those customers is Amnesty International, already hosted on the CauseSquare app.

Alex Neve, Amnesty International Canada's secretary general, has been a friend and supporter since the early days of Arar's rendition, working closely with Mazigh and campaigning for Arar's release.

Neve isn't surprised that both Arar the innovator and Arar the human rights advocate have chosen to focus energy on a social enterprise.

"He's now been able to marry the two together. I don't know if it's so much a reinvention of Maher, but it's sort of closing the circle in some respects," Neve  says.

It's a circle that takes Arar back to his entrepreneurial roots, and while his involvement in CauseSquare can't erase what happened, those who know him can see the effect it's having.

"One of my friends leaned over and said, 'I don't think I've ever seen your father this excited,'" Arar's daughter Baraa says.

Arar attributes that to the fact that now, instead of looking back, he's constantly looking ahead, making plans and setting important goals.

"We have a vision here. We're creating a future. We want to become the next Shopify," he says, referring to the Ottawa e-commerce software company that launched on the public markets last year with a valuation of more than $1 billion.

His reinvention well underway, Arar says his rendition to Syria has in a strange way made him the person he's become — the entrepreneur he is again.

"I'm a victim of rendition, I'm a victim of torture, but I would like to now do what I'm passionate about. I would like to contribute towards the solutions and, yeah, I would like to be branded as an entrepreneur."

Maher Arar at CauseSquare headquarters, in the Vanier office building he owns. (Pierre-Paul Couture/CBC)

About the Author

Julie Ireton

Senior Reporter

Julie Ireton is with CBC Ottawa. She’s a critical thinker who has produced hundreds of original pieces of impact journalism. You can reach her at julie.ireton@cbc.ca