he king’s university is small, even by the standards of small,
Christian liberal arts schools. Lodged between a plastics manufacturer and a suburb of mid-century bungalows in southeast
Edmonton, the university features a concrete arch at the entrance that gives it the look of a neighbourhood mall, while a
tower behind it makes it look more like a factory. Eight hundred
students flow through its baby-blue-tinged halls, majoring in
arts, humanities, music, science, commerce and education, all
of it imbued by a Christian perspective “as followers of Jesus
Christ, the Servant-King,” according to its mission. But there is
a handful of students from other faiths and, last fall, one in particular stood out: a 29-year-old Muslim man with a trim beard.
Omar Khadr arrived wearing a bucket hat and a big grin. His blue backpack was a gift from the mother of King’s professor Arlette Zinck, his
long-time tutor. He and Dr. Zinck met six years ago at Guantanamo Bay
Detention Centre in Cuba, where Mr. Khadr, its youngest inmate, had
languished since 2003 on charges of war crimes following a firefight between the Taliban and American soldiers in Afghanistan. A U.S. sergeant
was killed and, though evidence is scant, U.S. forces contend that Mr.
Khadr – who was blinded by shrapnel in one eye during the battle and
had fist-sized exit wounds in his shoulder and chest – threw the grenade.
He was 15.
That he is now free, well before the end of his sentence in 2018, may
not have been possible without King’s advocacy. For years, the largely
evangelical student body staged protests and symposiums arguing for his
release, and urged faculty to help repatriate and educate him. Not everyone is happy with King’s position, and when Mr. Khadr stepped on to
campus that September day last year, safety was uppermost on the minds
of university officials. “Would our students and Omar himself be safe from
someone who might want to hurt him?” wondered university president
Melanie J. Humphreys.
The university stopped short of hiring security but encouraged people to give him space. Mr. Khadr is deeply private and, after 14 years as
the subject of often vitriolic headlines, understandably avoids attention.
(He declined to be interviewed for this article.) Nevertheless, much to his
chagrin, Mr. Khadr has become a minor celebrity in Edmonton and on
occasion must politely decline a well-wisher’s request for a picture. The
situation at King’s was no different, especially amongst the senior students
who took part in the activism that helped lead to his release.
“They were very excited,” recalls Britta deGroot, a recent graduate
who was involved in the early advocacy efforts and is now the school’s in-
clusive postsecondary education coordinator. “Omar handled it well. He’s
just a really welcoming guy and he’s always got this smile on his face that
draws people in.” His presence was never disruptive to classes, she says,
and with time the attention waned and Mr. Khadr was treated like any
regular student. Ms. deGroot and he are now friends. Something that con-
tinues to amaze her, she says, is that he appears to hold no grudges. “He
could easily be a jaded, angry person, but he’s not. It makes you wonder,
where does that come from? How can I get that?”
the image of a smiling Omar Khadr was not the one first projected on the
screen at a morning talk held at King’s in September 2008. The speaker,
Dennis Edney, a dour Scot and human rights lawyer living in Edmon-
ton, was invited to speak about Mr. Khadr, his client, during an event or-
ganized by the university’s initiative for global justice called the Micah
Centre. Since he’d begun representing Mr. Khadr pro bono in 2005, Mr.
Edney had struggled to find a receptive audience. He deliberately reached
out to places of worship, assuming pious people would find the humanity
in this young man that others had failed to see. He says he was met with
“overwhelming silence, save for a few mosques.”
The theme of King’s biannual symposium was “invisible dignity.” Until
then, the face of Mr. Khadr – other than a solemn passport photo of a
pubescent boy – had been invisible to most attendees in the school gym-
nasium. Many were learning of the Toronto-born child soldier, who was
thrust into explosives training by his radicalized father, for the first time.
Those who were acquainted with the story had likely known him as the
son of “Canada’s First Family of Terrorism,” as the Khadrs were dubbed by
some in the media. It was standing room only.