ERBIL, Iraq – Basim Razzo’s apartment in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Erbil is pristine, without the clutter of most family homes. The crisp kitchen cabinets contain cans of Maxwell House coffee, a brand he and his wife Mayada became fond of when living in the United States in the 1980s.
In the living room next to a large-screen TV, a pink plush unicorn and other stuffed toys are neatly stacked on a blue armchair, awaiting the next visit from her 3-year-old granddaughter, who Mr. Razzo, is his life now. .
The little girl is also named Mayada, named after her grandmother, Mr. Razzo’s late wife. Mayada Taka and the couple’s 21-year-old daughter, Tuqa, were killed in an airstrike on their home in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2015 by the US-led coalition fighting the militant group ISIS.
Mr. Razzo, asleep a few meters from his wife, survived, although he was seriously injured. Her brother and nephew died in a second attack on their neighboring house. Mr. Razzo’s other child, his son Yahya, now father of the young Mayada, fled to Erbil at the start of the occupation.
Mr. Razzo’s case was documented in a 2017 New York Times magazine investigation who found that the deaths of hundreds of civilians in coalition airstrikes had never been acknowledged by the United States, which oversaw the targeting of anti-ISIS missions in Qatar.
Washington has never publicly apologized for mistakenly identifying Mr. Razzo’s house as an ISIS car bomb factory. But last year, the Dutch government, a member of the coalition, admitted that one of its pilots had led the strike and awarded Mr. Razzo’s compensation is estimated to be approximately $ 1 million.
It would be understandable if Mr. Razzo was bitter after the attack which killed his wife and daughter and seriously injured him. But instead, he preaches empathy and forgiveness, working with the group World in conversation connect Iraqi university students in Erbil, Mosul and Najaf with students in the United States through online dialogues.
While not ready to meet the Dutch pilot – who is himself haunted by his role in the tragedy – Mr Razzo has sent him a message.
“I said, ‘Look, tell him he’s following orders. He’s a soldier. It was his job. If he had known it was families here, I’m sure he wouldn’t have bombed, but he didn’t know. So tell him I forgive him.
In Iraq and many countries, a more common reaction is a vow of revenge.
“Some people say forgiveness is the act of a coward,” he said recently in an interview with Erbil. But as a Muslim, he believes that a person’s fate is determined before they are born.
“I have no other explanation that it is an act of God,” he said of why he stayed alive. “Maybe it was my destiny to do that. Because after that I started to preach ideas, I started talking about empathy and I started talking about forgiveness.
Part of it started in a friendship he formed in 2013 with an American professor after Mr. Razzo stumbled across his TEDx. speak about the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, titled “A Radical Experiment in Empathy”.
In it, Professor Sam Richards, a sociologist at Penn State University, asked Americans to imagine how they would feel if the United States were invaded and occupied by the Chinese military.
“I didn’t know what the word empathy meant, so I searched,” said Mr. Razzo, 61. He emailed Mr. Richards, who ended up asking him to video link each semester to the 700 students in his sociology class. The students asked him about being Iraqi and about Islam, and he felt he made a real connection with them.
But he cut it after the bombing.
A year later, “Sam said ‘Basim, I want you to come back to my class,’” Mr. Razzo said. I said ‘Sam, I can’t.’ He said, ‘Please do it.’ “
In fact, he did more than that, going to State College, PA to speak to the students in person after raising money for the trip. While in the United States, he met with military officials and Senator Patrick Leahy with the aim of making the military accept responsibility for the bombing. To date, he has not done so, although he has offered Mr. Razzo $ 15,000 in condolence payments – too little even to pay for the damage done to his cars in the attack.
He rejected the offer and said he was promised a letter from a military lawyer confirming that none of his family members were associated with ISIS. He never received it. But that didn’t stop him from reaching out to bridge the gap between the Americans and the Iraqis.
He began his work with World in Conversation by connecting Mosul students with their American counterparts in 2018, a year after the city was freed from three years of ISIS control.
“You know, the students who stayed in Mosul lost three years of their university life,” he said of the weekly dialogues. “They’ve seen so many bad things. They were so bitter that all they could talk about was what IS had done to them.
“So I said, ‘Look, for the first semester, I’ll let you get away with it, but next semester I want you to broaden your horizons. Stop talking about ISIS.’ By the next semester, they had effectively stopped talking about ISIS, he says.
Mr. Razzo grew up in a large upper middle class family in Mosul. He was encouraged by his pharmacist father to study engineering, which he did at the University of Michigan. He and Mayada Tuka, a cousin, got married and she joined him there.
Both were in their twenties and life was good, he said. While pursuing undergraduate engineering studies, Ms. Tuka worked as an Avon representative. They wanted to stay in the United States after he graduated, but it was 1988, the Iran-Iraq war was raging and his father wanted him to return home.
“He said, ‘You are my oldest child. I want you to be next to me, ”Mr. Razzo said. “Tradition says that I cannot say no to my father. And that was the biggest mistake.
When ISIS invaded northern Iraq in 2014, Mr. Razzo was an account manager for Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company. Fearing that ISIS would confiscate their homes and businesses if they left, the family, other than Yahya, decided to stay and found themselves trapped.
On the night of the bombing, Ms Tuka went to bed early and Mr Razzo lay awake watching videos of cars on his computer. Seeing the light escaping from his daughter’s bedroom, he told her to turn off his cell phone, then fell asleep.
The attack occurred a few hours later.
“The sound of the explosion was indescribable,” he said. There were two explosions, he said, “one on my house, the other on my late brother’s house. And then all black. The electricity went out and when I looked up and the smoke cleared, I saw the sky.
The roof and the entire second story had collapsed, instantly killing his wife and daughter. Next to it, only her sister-in-law, who was blown through a window, survived.
Mr. Razzo says the ordeal left him a different person.
“Everything has changed for me,” he says. “I never had patience. I have patience now. So many things I do that I’ve never done before, ”from trying new foods to embracing new experiences.
Despite all his insistence on empathy and forgiveness, he has not forgiven the US military for approving the attack on his home.
“They should have had more surveillance,” he said. “They should have had intelligence on the ground. But they didn’t.
Thanks to the agreement of the Dutch government, he was able to buy an apartment for a nephew and a car for his son, while providing for his mother. It has all been deeply satisfying, and his work to connect people, he says.
“I see it from different angles now,” he said. “If you have lived a joyful life or if you have brought joy to someone’s life, then you have lived a good life.”