Toronto

Former political prisoner Khaled Al-Qazzaz overcomes trauma by giving back

Khaled Al-Qazzaz, a Canadian who languished for about a year in solitary confinement in a notorious Egyptian prison, has launched a foundation to help refugees and other vulnerable people in Canada.

'I can relate to the suffering. I can relate to people who have missed out on family, on real opportunities'

Three years ago, when University of Toronto graduate Khaled Al-Qazzaz was languishing in an Egyptian prison, he told fellow inmate Mohamed Fahmy that if he were ever released, he would give back. He launched his own foundation Wednesday focused in part on helping to resettle refugees. (CBC)

As he lay awake in a insect-infested cell in the solitary confinement wing of an Egyptian prison, one thought kept Khaled Al-Qazzaz going.

If they ever made it out alive, he told his prison-mate Mohamed Fahmy, one day they would meet again in Toronto — free. He would reunite with his wife and the two of them would launch some sort of school, something to build on their passion for education.

That was three years ago. And Wednesday, as promised, the University of Toronto graduate realized that dream with the launch of the Al-Qazzaz Foundation for Education and Development.

It's an organization aimed, in part, at bettering the lives of refugees by helping them to obtain mental health care, education, fill in the gaps of their settlement — and help address their trauma.

"I can relate to the suffering. I can relate to people who have missed out on family, on real opportunities. So I feel that I share similar experiences, but I seem to have found the right support," Al-Qazzaz told CBC Toronto, ahead of the launch event on Wednesday at the Mississauga Convention Centre.

'In prison your mind is your worst enemy'

The 36-year-old Mississauga, Ont., man's ordeal began during the military coup of 2013 when then Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi was ousted. Al-Qazzaz, who had been serving as Morsi's secretary of foreign affairs, was among those rounded up in the arrests, though he was never charged.

Mohamed Fahmy hugs his wife, Marwa Omara, after being released from Torah prison in Cairo. Fahmy a former Al-Jazeera journalist, was imprisoned with Al-Qazzaz. Both were released in 2015. (Amr Nabil/Associated Press)

He was left to languish in the terrorism wing of Egypt's notorious maximum-security Tora Prison — dubbed the Scorpion —  with little food, few family visits, no pens or paper, and little more than a concrete floor for a mattress.

"Our only way of communication was talking through a hatch carved in our cell doors," said Fahmy, a former Al-Jazeera journalist.

"We made sure to communicate in English so that the one guard listening in could not understand what we were saying," Fahmy said.

"In prison your mind is your worst enemy and he overcame the pressure and remained alive and endured the pain."

Even then, Fahmy said, Al-Qazzaz's compassion shone.

"One day his wife brought him a hamburger during the family visit and he was kind enough to split the cold sandwich with me when he got back to the cell," he recalled.

Helping part of healing

When he returned to Canada last August, Al-Qazzaz finally underwent surgery for the severe spinal injuries he suffered while in custody. Immobilized, he distracted himself through his recovery by blueprinting his foundation, an online portal to help refugees and others in need to locate social services.

"I think it's part of the healing process," Al-Qazzaz said.

Khaled Al-Qazzaz poses with his wife, Sarah, and children after they returned to Egypt to see Khaled after his official release from detention for the first time in one and a half years, in February 2015. (FreeKhaledalQazzaz.com)

"Part of the thing that I struggled with in captivity is not being able to do anything. So the moment you come back to an open and free society, in a free environment where the institutions are actually supporting you … your family is there, you're actually able to do more."

For Fahmy, despite the differences between their political views, it's the humanity he saw in Al-Qazzaz —  in his kindness to elderly prisoners and support for young college students also detained there —  that convinces him his foundation will be a success.

From receiving to giving

"I am confident that his foundation will ‎champion the cause of the voiceless," Fahmy said.

But Al-Qazzaz said the "tremendous support" he got from Canadians, specifically family and friends who believed in him during and after his imprisonment, played a role too.

And now, three years after appealing to them to help secure his release, Al-Qazzaz continues to draw on that support, both to give back and ease himself back into life at home.

"When you stand strong on your principles and on the values that you believe in, values that are related to democracy and equity … values that I really enjoy and learnt here in Canada of tolerance and diversity — you feel that all the sacrifice that you've done before is meaningful and has led to something that is positive," he said.

"You feel that it was worth it. And I really feel it was."

About the Author

Shanifa Nasser

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Shanifa Nasser is an award-winning journalist interested in national security, the justice system and stories with a heartbeat. Her work has led to two investigations by CBC's The Fifth Estate. She was previously a Munk Journalism Fellow and holds an MA in Islamic Studies from the University of Toronto. shanifa.nasser@cbc.ca

With files from Ali Chiasson

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