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King’s Professor Reaches Out to Convicted Terrorist

Arlette Zinck leads effort to provide lessons for Omar Khadr

The Bible teaches believers to reach out to others and to promote reconciliation and restoration. But does that message apply to someone convicted of being involved in terrorism? A professor at King’s University College believes it does.

Arlette Zinck, an Associate Professor of English at King’s, has befriended and become a teacher for Omar Khadr, who was captured at age 15 in 2002 after a firefight with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

In a 2010 plea bargain, Khadr pleaded guilty to the death of a U.S. soldier, spying, aiding terrorism and attempted murder. He was given an eight year sentence and sent to Canada in 2012 to serve out his time.

Zinck, 50, became involved with Khadr’s case following a visit by his lawyer, Dennis Edney, to a conference at the Christian Reformed Church-sponsored school in 2008.

There was “something about his presentation” that moved her and many students at the school, she says.

After the conference, Zinck decided to write Khadr. After he wrote back, they struck up a correspondence. She was impressed by his responses, finding him an intelligent and thoughtful person, despite only having a limited education.

Soon she was providing him with tutorials, sending him books to read and quizzing him on their contents. In 2010 Khadr’s U.S. military defense team asked her to turn the informal tutoring into a formal lesson plan. She was also invited to come down twice to Cuba provide in-person instruction.

True Justice

Today, with Khadr in Edmonton, she works with other professors from the school who visit him regularly to offer lessons in subjects such as math, literature, history and geography.

For Khadr, it’s a chance to get the education he missed as a child, having been taken by his father to Al-Qaeda training camps in Pakistan when he was just 10 years-old.

For Zinck, it’s a way to put into practice what she considers to be the best kind of justice — restorative justice. “There is no other kind,” she says.

She laments that, in Khadr’s case, punishment seems to have replaced the idea of restoring someone to the community.

Canada, she says, “has a long and rich tradition of pioneering the best programs in restorative justice. We need to return to a day when we don’t seek vengeance but true justice, which is restorative justice . . . the goal is to renew, restore and reconcile those who have erred, even those who have erred horribly.”

This includes restoring Khadr, who she believes has suffered a grave injustice at the hands of the U.S. and Canada.

Witness Across a Divide

“The court in Guantanamo was not a legitimate American court,” she says. “No American could ever be tried in that court. What happened to Omar shouldn’t happen to anyone.”

At the same time, she is concerned for the widow of the soldier killed in the firefight that involved Khadr. “She also deserves meaningful support,” Zinck says.

As for what all this has meant to her personally, Zinck says it has “affected me very deeply.” This includes how she, a Christian, and Khadr, a Muslim, have developed a close friendship across a religious divide.

“When sincere people of faith get together, we can grow in appreciation for things we hold in common, and for the things that split us apart,” she says, adding that Khadr has “a vibrant and life-giving faith.”

She has also discovered “what it means to live purposefully, and in a way that doesn’t let me write people off,” Zinck, who was raised Roman Catholic, says.

As for his future educational pursuits, in 2010 Khadr said he would “be honoured” to attend King’s, and that he hoped someday to go into medicine.

In an e-mail to CBC News in 2012, King's Vice President of Institutional Advancement Dan Van Keeken said that if Khadr decided to apply to King's, “we would treat him as any other applicant.”

CBC added that many students at King’s said they would supportive the idea of Khadr applying to their school.

If that happens, Zinck will be pleased. Khadr, she says, is “a remarkably healthy, whole and outward-focused young man who wants to get on with his life. He’s a hard worker, and he has great academic potential.”

As for the lessons she is teaching him right now, “I enjoy it as much as teaching any student,” she adds. “But there is extra satisfaction in being a witness to the power of the human spirit, how he manages to focus on all that is good.”

  • John has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News. This article originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press at www.winnipegfreepress.com.

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