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

SYRIAN STORY

Monday 25 April 2016 | 5:23 PM Damascus Time

Syrian detaineeSyrian governmentCanadaUSAal-Qaeda

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

    CBC NEWS

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

     

    "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.

    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."

    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.

    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.

    , 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."

    Syrian detaineeSyrian governmentCanadaUSAal-Qaeda