Meet the Canadian Professor Who Has Been Teaching Omar Khadr at Guantánamo

28.6.12

Last week, lawyers for Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen and former child prisoner who has been imprisoned in Guantánamo for nearly ten years, held a press conference in Ottawa to complain about the Canadian government’s failure to honor a deal that was supposed to guarantee his return to Canada eight months ago.

It is to be hoped that the press conference has succeeded in putting pressure on the government — and particularly on Public Safety Minister Vic Toews — to stop procrastinating, and to secure Khadr’s return, as agreed in the plea deal he signed at his military commission in Guantánamo in October 2010, when he was told that he would serve one more year at Guantánamo, and then be returned to Canada to serve the last seven years of an eight-year sentence.

At the press conference, John Norris, one of Khadr’s Canadian civilian lawyers, explained that his client was “trying to pursue an education as part of his rehabilitation,” and his two US military lawyers — Lt. Col. Jon Jackson and Maj. Matthew Schwartz — explained that they had spent hundreds of hours with him, and described him as “an intelligent young man” who is quick to learn and has a “love of learning.” As the Toronto Star put it, “Schwartz taught him geography, history and practiced singing O Canada and the American anthem with him,” and “Jackson taught science and mathematics, and read Shakespeare, The Hunger Games and The Road [by Cormac McCarthy] with him.” Lt. Col. Jackson explained, “His insights into those books shows he gets it, he gets what it means to be a useful member of society.”

In my article last week, I explained that the lawyers’ descriptions correspond exactly with the findings of Arlette Zinck, an English professor at King’s University, a small Christian university in Edmonton, who was involved in an extraordinary exchange of letters with Khadr in the years before his plea deal, and who, it emerged this week, has actually been allowed to visit Guantánamo to play a major part in what the Calgary Herald described, with a predictable touch of paranoia, as “an effort to rehabilitate Khadr” — something that dangerous right-wingers in Canada argue is impossible, but that Zinck and Khadr’s lawyers know is not difficult at all.

He is “learning like a sponge,” Lt. Col. Jackson explained, speaking by phone from Washington D.C., and “revealing details” of two “highly unusual visits” to Guantánamo, by Arlette Zinck, in April and May this year. “The U.S. has an interest in him becoming an educated person,” Jackson added, noting that his government wants to “maximize the rehabilitation potential” before Khadr is sent back to Canada.

Jackson, it turns out, didn’t actually teach Khadr English, but “sat in on several lessons with Zinck.” He said of Khadr, “I was impressed by his native intelligence and his desire to learn,” and how quickly he worked.

Zinck first wrote to Khadr in November 2008, inspired, she said in 2010, by her Christian faith, which “asks people to comfort those in need, including prisoners.” This week, however, she particularly credited Dennis Edney, one of Khadr’s former civilian attorneys. She met Edney and Nate Whitling, Khadr’s other Canadian civilian attorney at the time, three years ago, as all three are from Edmonton. As a result of that meeting, Edney “encouraged Zinck to organize lessons for Khadr, whose formal schooling stopped in Grade 8.” Zinck explained, “Dennis gets 100 per cent of the credit.”

She added that she “never thought she would be able visit her unusual pupil” in Guantánamo, but was invited to spend a week at the prison, from April 23 to May 1, “meeting Khadr for six or seven hours a day doing lessons on Canadian novels such as Who Has Seen the Wind, by W.O. Mitchell and The Icefields, by Edmonton writer Thomas Wharton.” Next on the list, the Calgary Herald noted, is Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje.

Zinck then returned, staying from May 21 to May 24. She explained that Khadr “was chained to the floor during the lessons, which took place in a small interview room with military personnel present,” a sign of the prevailing obsession with security at the prison. Despite what were described as “the adverse prison conditions,” she said that her student was “diligent and dedicated” to his studies, and “an avid reader,” whose “progress is impressive.” In the Toronto Star, she added that, while mathematics is Khadr’s passion — and he described it as being “like oil for my rusty brain” — she believes he has a “poetic temperament.”

By way of explanation, she stated that, by the end of her second visit, “he was mastering the techniques of essay writing (on The Hunger Games novels) and learning to analyze the poetry of John Donne.” She also noted that he “continues to work on physics, math and biology,” and that he has “lessons on human psychology [and] social studies including the Canadian Constitution,” part of “a curriculum devised by a team of 15 Edmonton professors and cleared by the Guantánamo camp’s commanders,” as the Toronto Star explained, which is called “Educating Omar Khadr.” Zinck also sent a copy of the popular CBC TV program, “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” about a Muslim community in a fictional prairie town, which Khadr was given permission to watch.

She also explained that, in his first lesson, he read Obasan, a novel by Joy Kogawa, about the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II. Zinck said that he “got to the heart of that story,” as he subsequently did with The Hunger Games, adding that he understands the “moral complexities of the novels.” The Toronto Star also noted that “Romeo and Juliet was a favourite to read aloud, with his 6’6” Pentagon lawyer [Jackson] playing the role of Juliet.”

John Norris, who was visiting Guantánamo at the time, also stopped by to teach Khadr about the Canadian Constitution. He said that he was “impressed by Khadr’s grasp of the functioning of Canadian courts,” where his lawyers won several important victories, all the way to the Supreme Court, demonstrating that his rights as a Canadian citizen had been violated in US custody. “He understood the liberal democratic values our system is based on,” Norris said, adding, “He also understood his is a political case.”

The Calgary Herald noted that Khadr had also impressed the US authorities in Guantánamo, because he “continued to ask for school work after he was transferred to a more isolated cell upon conviction.” Lt. Col. Jackson noted that none of the handful of other prisoners convicted in their trials by military commission — or who, like Khadr, had accepted plea deals — were making similar requests.

Zinck attributed this to his personality, but also to his age. “One of the more remarkable things about Omar,” she said, “is that he finds a way to stay positive and hopeful when many grown men would not. The energy and determination he puts into his studies is impressive, especially in the exceptionally difficult circumstances.”

She added that she was aware that “a vocal group of Canadians don’t want Khadr to return home” — people who “see him as a radicalized terrorist who is dangerous to the public,” and “don’t approve of the effort to rehabilitate him” — but they will be disappointed. Apart from the fact that he was born in Canada and is a Canadian citizen, and therefore cannot be prevented from returning to Canada, Zinck pointed out that the punishment brigade have failed to realize that “what she and the other professors are providing will be readily available when Khadr returns to a Canadian prison,” because “access to courses and academic upgrading is routine” in Canada, and “[r]ehabilitation is part of the Corrections Canada philosophy.”

In the Toronto Star, Zinck also pointed to her faith to explain “why she continues working with a prisoner who some Canadians hope remains locked in Guantánamo forever.” Speaking about her “duty as a human being,” she asked, paraphrasing Hamlet, “If each was treated according to his deserts, who among us would escape whipping?” and noted that she “prays regularly” for the children and widow of Sgt. Christopher Speer, the US Special Forces soldier who was killed in the firefight in July 2002 that led to Khadr’s capture. “This is not about the needs of one to the neglect of the other,” she said. “So to the many who say, ‘How can you be concerned about Omar? Haven’t you any Christian charity for the soldier’s wife?’ I say, you misunderstand me entirely.”

In the Toronto Star, Michelle Shephard also noted that the clinical psychologist Katherine Porterfield, who works at New York’s Bellevue Hospital and “has spent hundreds of hours working with Khadr over the years,” said that she was “amazed at Zinck’s rapport” with Khadr. “She has made a good student out of him,” Porterfield said. “I watched her do a lesson on world religion … They both talked about the depths of their faiths and how they overlapped and where they didn’t. It was so interesting.”

One evening, Zinck explained, she gave Khadr an assignment — to compare the themes in Obasan, The Hunger Games trilogy and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — and “made sure the lawyers and Porterfield did the homework, too.” The next day, at the presentation, Khadr was thoroughly “prepared and organized and thoughtful,” according to Zinck, who also explained, “He is a very morally centred person and could identify that in the literature. He just kicked their butts, frankly.”

I look forward to the day when Omar Khadr and Arlette Zinck can meet again in Canada, but for that to happen the Canadian government needs to stop dragging its heels on the deal to bring him home. As I noted last week, readers are encouraged to contact Vic Toews to demand Omar Khadr’s return to Canada.

Hill Office: House of Commons, Ottawa, Ontario K1A 0A6. 
Telephone: 613-992-3128, Fax: 613-995-1049
Email: vic.toews@parl.gc.ca Website: www.victoews.com

Constituency Office: 227 Main Street, Suite 8 (Main Office), Steinbach, Manitoba, R5G 1Y7.
Telephone: 204-326-9889, Fax: 204-346-9874.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

19 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Shahrina J. Ahmed wrote:

    Forever grateful for the work that you do Andy!! Thank you!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Well, thank you for the supportive words, Shahrina!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Supra Trader wrote:

    Thank You for Sharing.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    You’re most welcome!

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Allison Lee-Clay wrote:

    got to wonder how much therapy he’ll need… & how he’ll get it

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    I think he has good people looking out for him, like Arlette, and his lawyers past and present, and it sounds like he will recover well given the chance, but we have to get him out of Guantanamo first!

  7. Trish Kennedy says...

    Hi Andy, This is a very affecting piece. As an English teacher, The Hunger Games resonates. Omar’s connection with the book only connects him with countless young adults across the world! What a sweet scene your R & J play-acting anecdote conjures! I’m bringing Omar to the attention of our school’s Social Justice Group. Would you recommend traditional letters or emails to Vic Toews?
    Best – Trish

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    I imagine that letters would have particular impact, Trish, although he also can’t fail to notice, surely, if his inbox is full of complaints. I’m glad to hear that Arlette’s humanitarian response to Omar has resonated with you, and hope other teachers feel the same.

  9. Helen Sadowski says...

    Hi Andy

    Thanks so much for referring to the piece by Sheila Pratt on the education of Omar Khadr and especially the work of Arlette Zinck. Omar Khadr is clearly an exceptional young man who has been a political pawn now for more than 10 years.

    After reading about Omar’s progress and academic skills, I couldn’t help tweeting Vic Toews with the following: Will Omar Khadr become better educated than Vic Toews….probably.” Toews always appears like a bit of a dummy, but clearly a dangerous dummy.

    For those who might want to read the entire piece here is a link:

    http://www.edmontonjournal.com/news/Edmonton+professor+taught+Khadr+Guantanamo/6844805/story.html

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Helen. Very good to hear from you. Great Tweet to Vic Toews!

  11. arcticredriver says...

    Michelle Shephard also mentioned that Professor Zinck was able to get Khadr access to a light-hearted Canadian sitcom called Little Mosque on the Prairie. The writer and creator is a muslim woman, who aimed to portray mainstream muslims as unthreatening members of the greater Canadian community. It took a few pokes at the absurdity of US border control, and that earned it critical mention with some other Canadian shows in the diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks, as yet another example of Canada’s anti-Americanism.

    The final episode of the final season was broadcast a couple of months ago, and I watched an interview with the creator and the actors. The actor who portrayed the most conservative muslim character in the series turned out to be a hindu, in real life. He described being button-holed by a recent muslim immigrant, who discovered the show, when he was feeling culture-shock and alienation, and the portrayal of muslims like himself, in the show, helped him pull through that bad patch of homesickness. He then asked the actor which mosque he attended. It was apparently an awkward moment.

    Anyhow, after reading Shephard’s article, and reflecting on how friendly the creator and actors appeared in this interview, I wondered if Dr Zinck might be able to have some of them send Omar an encouraging video letter, possibly referencing that letter Omar sent to CBC journalist Nazim Baksh, that we discussed a month or so ago.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. Good to hear from you, and thanks also for the suggestion about those involved in “Little Mosque on the Prairie” getting in touch with Omar. Perhaps they will pick up on it …

  13. Helen Sadowski says...

    Hi Andy

    Please promote this petition from Senator Romeo Dallaire to tell the Canadian Government to respect a deal and bring Omar Khadr home

    http://www.change.org/omarkhadr

    Here is the extremely moving and important speech he delivered in the Senate.

    Of course the Harper government remains “camped on the dark side” and with its intransigence giving the hate groups and anti-democratic forces in our country a real boost.

    http://romeodallaire.sencanada.ca/en/p103115/

    Thanks and best wishes!!!

    Helen Sadowski

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Helen. I’m doing my best to promote it now. I hadn’t seen it before today, and you’re the third person to tell me about it. Is it new, do you know?

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Whatever the case, it’s doing incredibly well. Hundreds of signatures every hour!

  16. Helen Sadowski says...

    Hi Andy
    Yes it is new. It was posted by Romeo Dallaire about 2 days ago and on the first day about 10,000 signed. Yep looking good!

    Best wishes

    Helen

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Helen. Yes, I figured that out, and I began promoting it too. At one point there were hundreds of people signing it every hour. I’m trying to keep up the momentum! Posted it on the “Close Guantanamo” site yesterday, and will be putting it up on my site today.

  18. Helen Sadowski says...

    Yes, we need to keep the momentum going!! Big hugs from all of us who are trying to do the same here in Canada.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes indeed, Helen. My article about this on “Close Guantanamo” got a lot of interest, and I’m now about to cross-post it here.
    Here’s the “Close Guantanamo” article: http://www.closeguantanamo.org/Articles/60-Please-Support-Senator-Romeo-Dallaires-Campaign-to-Free-Omar-Khadr-from-Guantanamo

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