Terrorist’s son spreads message of peace
If any child had a reason to grow into an angry, hate-filled adult it would have been Zak Ebrahim.
At 10, his father was convicted of terrorism and murder. As a teenager, his stepfather beat him. At school, his classmates teased him mercilessly.
However, Mr. Ebrahim today travels the world, advocating peace, love and tolerance.
“I hope that through my talks people will see their capacity for change,” he said. “My goal is to make people realize, especially young people, that their choices matter even when it feels like they have little control over their lives.”
The Philadelphia author is in Bermuda this week talking to Somersfield Academy students about his book, The Terrorist’s Son: A Story of Choice. He gives a public talk on Saturday.
In November 1990, he was 7 when his mother woke him to say there had been an accident and they had to leave their New Jersey home. She gave him a white sheet and told him to pack into it whatever he wanted to take.
“What shall we pack?” he asked.
“Whatever will fit,” was her answer. “I’m not sure if we’re coming back.”
Later, he learnt that his Egyptian-born, Muslim father, was caught in a terrorist act in Manhattan.
“He abandoned his family to perpetuate a cycle of violence that changed nothing,” Mr. Ebrahim said.
“An advantage to me is that I can look at my father’s actions and learn from them. The assassination he committed did nothing to the people he thought he was trying to help. Violence only perpetuates the problem further. We have to find a better solution.”
His mother eventually divorced his father and remarried, but his stepfather was abusive.
“For three years, I was only allowed to go to school and come home,” Mr. Ebrahim said. “He would follow me to school and watch me through the window.”
He wasn’t very open-minded by the time he reached 18 but a job at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida, helped change that.
“Until then, I was extremely judgmental of most of the people I encountered,” he said.
“I’d say the most formative experiences I had were towards some of the gay employees there. I had never had gay friends before and frankly I was openly disapproving of their lifestyle. It was when they showed me kindness in the face of my own bigotry that I realized not only was I no better than a bully but that these people had a greater moral compass than I.”
He hid his background, legally changing his name at 16. After a stint in university, he became a welder and fabricator.
In his mid-twenties, he had a change of heart, thinking he could change things by sharing his experiences. He wanted people to understand that even if they were raised with a dogma of hate, they could still choose a different path.
“I started writing and speaking,” he said. I thought maybe people could learn from my experiences.”
His big break as a speaker came in 2014.
“I was living outside of Philadelphia at the time,” he said.
“One day I got an e-mail advertisement from TEDx saying, ‘Do you have an interesting story?’ I sent in the application and video of me speaking with about one-minute left on the entry deadline.”
He got word of his acceptance after a long, hard day.
“I was struggling to work pay cheque to pay cheque,” he said. “It was very stressful and I didn’t feel appreciated.
“When I heard I’d been accepted to TEDx, it was such an amazing relief. There was a lot of hope in that and they exceeded my expectations.”
His talk was so successful that the non- profit organization used it to publish its first book, “The Terrorist’s Son”. It won the American Library Association’s Alex Award that year.
It also allowed him to devote himself to full-time speaking, travelling the world to address adults and children as young as 5.
“It is the thing that gave me the most sense of self-worth,” he said. “That was something beaten out of me as a young kid.
“Adults ask a lot of questions about foreign policy. Young people generally have very unique questions about my life. One young kid once stood up and asked what my name was before I changed it. No one ever asked that before.”
Mr. Ebrahim gently told the child that he preferred to not give out his old name, as it brought back bad memories.
After his TEDx talk, his father, sentenced to life in prison, contacted him for the first time in years.
“He mentioned how much I looked like him,” Mr. Ebrahim said. “He told me initially that he was proud of my work and in recent years, he too had been advocating peaceful resolution to conflicts. He mailed me some letters he sent to various heads of state.”
As their communication continued, he found himself doubting his father’s sincerity, who also couldn’t accept that Mr. Ebrahim had left the Muslim faith.
“The conversation became increasingly unhealthy for me,” the author said. “I stopped communication.”