In Dallas in 2001, Rais Bhuiyan was shot in the face by a white supremacist, revenge for 9/11. He then spent years fighting to save the shooter’s life, and now runs a nonprofit called World Without Hate. He hopes to relocate to Seattle.
Ten days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, a man walked into a Dallas convenience store and held a double-barreled shotgun just inches from Rais Bhuiyan’s face.
Bhuiyan, who had been held up before, opened the register, put all the bills on the counter and asked the man not to shoot him.
“Where are you from?” the man asked, then opened fire.
The pellets felt to Bhuiyan like “millions of bees” stinging his face. He screamed for his mother.
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That would make sense later, since it was she who taught Bhuiyan to survive — and to forgive.
Bhuiyan, now 44, would recover from his injuries and go on to become an IT systems manager in Dallas, and marry an American woman named Jessica Carso.
But he also spent years fighting to save the life of Mark Stroman, the white supremacist who killed two other men before shooting Bhuiyan — crimes he considered revenge for the 9/11 attacks. Stroman was eventually sentenced to death.
Bhuiyan would petition Texas courts and even the U.S. Supreme Court for clemency in an effort to spare Stroman’s life. It was denied.
“By executing him, we would be losing him in life without dealing with the root cause,” he said on a recent visit to Seattle. “Execution was not the solution. It would not eradicate hate crimes from this world. I had to save his life to make a change.”
On the day of his execution, Stroman asked to speak with Bhuiyan on the phone.
“I love you, bro,” he told him.
Said Bhuiyan: “I couldn’t believe it was the same human who shot me in the face 10 years before.”
The experience would spur Bhuiyan to establish a nonprofit called World Without Hate, which strives to illustrate the power of — and teach — mercy and forgiveness through workshops and “empathy ambassador” training in schools, offices, even prisons.
“There is a need to cure this disease of hate in our society, this tribal mentality,” he said. “Institutional education doesn’t show you how to be polite, how to be compassionate, how to be a better human, unless your parents and teachers are willing to go the extra mile.”
Bhuiyan was here to speak to the Rotary Club of Seattle. He was invited by Rotarian Hamilton McCulloh, who saw a segment on “CBS Sunday Morning” about Bhuiyan last fall and invited him out.
“I thought, ‘This guy is amazing,’” McCulloh said. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
The invite was fortuitous, since Bhuiyan and Carso are hoping to relocate to Seattle, where they feel their mission is understood and embraced.
“We’ve traveled to many cities, and the passion we’ve seen for this cause is the highest in Seattle,” Bhuiyan said. “It’s a city not just famous for its tech industry, but it stood up against the Muslim ban, for human rights. It’s a sanctuary city.”
Bhuiyan is the subject of a book, “The True American,” written by Anand Giridharadas. The New York Times Book Review named it as one of the “100 Notable Books” of 2014.
Schools such as The College of Charleston and the University of Massachusetts Amherst have made it required summer reading for incoming freshmen, and have invited Bhuiyan to their campus discussions.
The rights to the book have been picked up for a feature film, Bhuiyan said. And he has visited The White House to be part of a domestic-policy council, and to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
There are plans to start university and community chapters of World Without Hate, which would create discussions and workshops around immigration, gun violence, racism and drugs — which all led to that moment at the convenience store between Stroman and Bhuiyan.
So much good has come from Bhuiyan’s gesture of forgiveness, and still you wonder: How did he do it? He is blind in one eye. He still has three-dozen shotgun pellets in his face. There isn’t a day when he isn’t reminded of what Stroman did.
Bhuiyan had so many answers, he barely knew where to start.
“I grew mentally and psychologically,” Bhuiyan began, then recalled a monthlong trip to Mecca, where he learned to see Stroman as a human.
He remembered something his mother taught him: When people hurt you, “Put a zipper on your mouth,” he said. “Stop the violence. It gives the other person a chance to think about what happened, and your mind will be able to act better.”
That’s exactly what happened to Stroman, Carso said. Prison gave him the time to think about what he did, away from the people who taught him that violence was the answer. (In interviews, Stroman blamed his stepfather “for lessons I should have never have learned.”)
“He really had to be quiet with himself,” she said, “without the noise outside, to think about what he grew up with.”
To be sure, though, Bhuiyan carries anger within him.
“It’s like a scar,” he said. “It may never go away. But you have the power to look at it and say, ‘I was able to heal it and to get myself back.’”