ERBIL, Iraq — Basim Razzo’s apartment in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil is pristine, with none of the clutter of most family homes. The spotless kitchen cupboards hold cans of Maxwell House coffee, a brand he and his wife Mayada became fond of when they lived in the United States in the 1980s.
In the living room next to a wide-screen TV, a pink plush unicorn and other stuffed toys are neatly stacked on a blue armchair, awaiting the next visit of his 3-year-old granddaughter, who Mr. Razzo says is his life now.
The little girl is also named Mayada, 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 U.S.-led coalition fighting the militant group ISIS.
Mr. Razzo, sleeping just a few feet from his wife, survived, though he was badly wounded. His brother and his nephew died in a second attack on their house next door. Mr. Razzo’s other child, his son Yahya, now the father of young Mayada, had fled to Erbil early in the occupation.
Mr. Razzo’s case was documented in a 2017 New York Times Magazine investigation which found that the deaths of hundreds of civilians in coalition airstrikes were never acknowledged by the United States, which oversaw targeting for the anti-ISIS missions from Qatar.
Washington has never publicly apologized for mistakenly identifying Mr. Razzo’s home as an ISIS car bomb factory. But last year the Dutch government, a member of the coalition, acknowledged that one of its pilots carried out the strike and awarded Mr. Razzo compensation believed to be about $1 million.
It would be understandable if Mr. Razzo were bitter over the attack that killed his wife and daughter and left him badly wounded. But instead he preaches empathy and forgiveness, working with the group World in Conversation to link Iraqi university students in Erbil, Mosul and Najaf with students in the United States through online dialogues.
While he is not ready to meet the Dutch pilot — who is himself haunted by his role in the tragedy — Mr. Razzo did send him a message.
“I said ‘Listen, tell him he was following orders. He’s a soldier. It was his job. If he knew that it was families in here I am 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 in an interview recently in Erbil. But as a Muslim, he believes a person’s destiny is determined before they are born.
“I have no other explanation other than it’s an act of God,” he said about the reason he was left alive. “Maybe it was my destiny to do this. Because after that I started preaching ideas, started talking about empathy and started talking about forgiveness.”
Some of that started in a friendship he struck up in 2013 with an American professor after Mr. Razzo happened upon his TEDx talk about the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, entitled “A Radical Experiment in Empathy.”
In it, the 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 looked it up,” said Mr. Razzo, 61. He emailed Mr. Richards, who ended up asking him to speak by video link each semester to the 700 students in his sociology class. The students asked him questions about being Iraqi and about Islam, and he felt that he was establishing a real connection with them.
But he cut it off after the bombing.
A year later, “Sam said ‘Basim I want you back in my class,’” Mr. Razzo said. I said ‘Sam, I can’t.’ He said, ‘Please just do it.’”
Actually, he did more than that, traveling to State College, Pa., to speak to the students in person after they raised money for the trip. While he was in the United States he met with military officials and Senator Patrick Leahy in a bid to have the military accept accountability for the bombing. To date it has not done that, though it did offer 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 says he was promised a letter from a military lawyer confirming that none of his family members were associated with ISIS. He has never received it. But that has not stopped his reaching out to bridge the divide between Americans and Iraqis.
He started his work with World in Conversation by connecting Mosul students to their U.S. counterparts in 2018, a year after the city was liberated from three years of ISIS control.
“You know students who stayed in Mosul lost three years of their academic life,” he said of the weekly dialogues. “They saw so many bad things. They were so bitter all they could talk about was what ISIS did to them.
“So I said ‘Listen, for the first semester I let you get away with this but next semester I want you to widen your horizons. Stop talking about ISIS.’” By the next semester they had indeed stopped talking about ISIS, he says.
Mr. Razzo grew up in a prominent 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, were married and she joined him there.
Both were in their early 20s, and life was good, he said. While he pursued an undergraduate engineering degree, 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 home.
“He said, ‘You’re my eldest. I want you to be beside me,’” Mr. Razzo said. “Tradition says I cannot say no to my dad. And that was the biggest mistake.”
When ISIS overran northern Iraq in 2014, Mr. Razzo was an account manager for Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications company. Fearing ISIS would confiscate their homes and businesses if they left, the family, other than Yahya, decided to stay and found themselves trapped.
The night of the bombing, Ms. Tuka went to bed early and Mr. Razzo stayed up watching car videos on his computer. Seeing light seeping from his daughter’s room, he told her to turn off her cellphone, and then he went to sleep.
The attack came 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 my late brother’s house. And then pitch black. The electricity went out and when I looked up and the smoke had cleared, I saw the sky.”
The roof and entire second floor had collapsed, killing his wife and daughter instantly. Next door, only his sister-in-law, who was blown through a window, survived.
Mr. Razzo says the ordeal left him a different person.
“Everything changed for me,” he said. “I never had patience. I have patience now. So many things that I do that I never did before,” from trying new foods to embracing new experiences.
For all his emphasis on empathy and forgiveness, he has not forgiven the U.S. military for approving the attack on his house.
“They should have had more surveillance,” he said. “They should have had ground intelligence. But they did not.”
With the settlement from the Dutch government, he has been able to buy an apartment for a nephew and a car for his son, while supporting his mother. All of that, along with his work connecting people, has been deeply satisfying, he says.
“I see things from different perspectives now,” he said. “If you have lived a joyful life or you have brought joy into somebody’s life, then you have lived a good life.”
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