‘I’m a tech guy’
Maher Arar, whose torture in Syria and subsequent demand for justice became front-page news, is back to doing what he loves: being an entrepreneur
OTTAWA The Globe and Mail Last updated:
The first thing you notice upon meeting Maher Arar is his smile. It is a wide, effortless and gentle smile. It’s also difficult to reconcile with the ubiquitous image from a decade ago of a sympathetic, devastated human rights casualty of the post-9/11 war on terror who demanded and eventually received justice.
“People I see today who haven’t seen me for a while, first they tell me, ‘I like your smile,’” Mr. Arar says as we settle in for a buffet lunch at the East India Company restaurant in downtown Ottawa. “It’s a polite way of saying, ‘You know, you’re now smiling.’ This is not to say that I don’t have flashbacks. I have them when I read a news story about somebody being detained [and] tortured. But nowadays I try to avoid reading those stories.”
In September, 2002, Mr. Arar was detained without charges by U.S. authorities on suspicions he had links to terrorists, then turned over not to his adopted home of Canada but his native Syria. There he was held captive in a cramped, decrepit cell and tortured repeatedly. The year-long experience, he later said, made him forget every enjoyable moment in his life.
After his return to Canada, Mr. Arar pressed to clear his name and in 2006 was exonerated by a public inquiry. He received an apology and $10.5-million from the Canadian government for its role in his trauma. The Canadian edition of Time magazine named him News Maker of the Year and one of the world’s most influential people. “He’s secured a place in Canadian history as one of our most iconic human rights figures,” says Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada.
But on this day in mid-March, Mr. Arar wants to talk about something else – something that brings him contentment. He stopped talking publicly about his case “because it just brings me back to the past,” he says in a pronounced voice, his smile draining away. “But also, it just makes this perception of me being the victim and only the victim, or only the survivor of torture, stick. I’m kind of tired of being labelled like that. This is not how I wanted to become known. I want to focus on the other side of me, which is the entrepreneur. … This is what I love doing in life. I’m a tech guy.”
At the time of his rendition, the Ottawa-based Mr. Arar was preparing to launch a technology startup. Now, he is about to launch the first product from his first technology startup since then: a mobile platform, CauseSquare, for helping non-profit institutions target, engage and solicit millennials.
“I would like CauseSquare to become the Facebook for good causes,” he says.
Like any good entrepreneur, Mr. Arar isn’t just selling technology, he’s telling a story. Non-profit organizations are struggling to connect with millennials, who have grown up digital, embraced new concepts such as ride-sharing and live on their mobile devices. Studies suggest many have fleeting attention spans, distrust big organizations and expect transactions to be convenient. “We also discovered that it’s a misunderstood generation by the non-governmental organizations themselves,” he says. “Non-profits mistakenly think of millennials as donors. They should think of them as fundraisers.” Most fundraising websites aren’t optimized for mobile platforms.
So CauseSquare is a mobile-first fundraising platform that will allow users to donate to a range of participating organizations. The goal is to make it simple for people to give the moment that impulse happens. Having a one-click donation button is “non-negotiable,” he says. Millennials like to be associated with causes they support, he says. So CauseSquare will reward points and electronic “badges” to people who hit certain donation thresholds to encourage repeat giving. “We think we can mobilize this generation to be involved in good stuff and be recognized,” Mr. Arar says.
He’s signed up 15 non-profits, including Amnesty and SOS Children’s Villages Canada, to test the platform when it launches in May. CauseSquare “gives us an opportunity to reach a constituency our other avenues and channels don’t reliably reach,” Amnesty’s Mr. Neve says.
Mr. Arar emigrated to Canada with his family when he was 17, avoiding military service in Syria. He was a young entrepreneur, running a currency exchange operation in his early teens in Damascus and building computers while studying engineering at McGill University, where he met his wife, Tunisian-born Monia Mazigh. He was an honest workaholic, determined to make it as an entrepreneur and start a family, she says.
The couple moved to Ottawa in 1997 and he worked for a couple of local tech ventures as a systems engineer before joining Boston-based MathWorks, which sells mathematical computing software, in September, 1999. He visited U.S. customers as a technical sales rep while his wife stayed in Canada to complete her PhD (she later emerged as an outspoken human rights activist and ran for the NDP in 2004). “He was always able to take extremely technical things and explain them in simple terms that I could understand” and could talk to senior engineering executives “as their peer,” says Chris Rutan, a former MathWorks salesman who often travelled with Mr. Arar.
In 2001, Mr. Arar quit to become a consultant – MathWorks remained a key customer – and start his own tech company, developing a tool to speed up the development of programmable chips. He had a five-year-old daughter and a newborn son and was months away from launching when his life was shattered.
Upon his return from Syria, Mr. Arar struggled to establish some normalcy amid the media frenzy. He had no luck finding work in his field. Ms. Mazigh encouraged him but eventually concluded “that it was almost impossible that he would be hired again,” she says. “His name has a heavy weight, and I think for companies, they are not ready to … associate their name with his.”
Mr. Arar enrolled at the University of Ottawa in 2005 and earned a PhD in wireless communications. He invented and sold the patent for an algorithm. He started an online magazine in 2010 called Prism that covered national security issues, but it shut three years later.
Mr. Arar spent a year figuring out what to do next, thinking he should try the startup route again. “Every time there was this urge that pushed me to go back, I was always scared. It was, ‘How will people perceive it, am I going to be successful or not?’” The trauma of his past also loomed. In March, 2014, Mr. Arar found himself in an ambulance, convinced he was having a heart attack. He’d experienced anxiety symptoms a year earlier; this was a full-on anxiety attack. He was hospitalized once more that year at the behest of his psychologist.
Anti-depressant medication helped, as did his continued determination. “I said to myself … I have to do what I love in life,” he says.
If one had no prior knowledge of his story, Mr. Arar would come across as no different than many other tech entrepreneurs. He is all-in, passionate, upbeat and single-minded as he talks about a business he believes will change the world.
In his case, it’s even more poignant. Just by getting to the starting line, Mr. Arar has triumphed. “Why should an experience of horrific human rights abuse define who you are to the rest of the world?” Mr. Neve says. “That’s an experience, it’s not your identity.”
Mr. Arar admits he sometimes feels guilty that he isn’t as active as he could be as a human right advocate. “But then I say, ‘Well, if you go back to that and you don’t enjoy life, you’re going to collapse again … that’s why I chose this field, because I think it’s a balance between me doing what I want to do, and I think there is a need in the market for it. But it also helps make the world a better place.”
CauseSquare is young. There’s no guarantee non-profits will adopt it en masse, that it can be a sustainable business. Few startups succeed. He and his partners are self-financing for now and plan to tinker with the platform for a year, but prospective financiers could have different ideas about what CauseSquare should be, or demand growth it can’t deliver. “I don’t want to grow fast and go down fast,” he says. “I want to take my time with this.”
Add to that one complicating factor: Mr. Arar may be on the U.S. no-fly list. He’s not sure but suspects so (his pursuit of justice there has been less successful, although he won sympathy from some prominent Americans). He’s reluctant to attempt travelling to the U.S., which could limit his company’s ability to engage customers.
He knows risks lie ahead, but he’s feeling positive, even drawing on his past experiences for motivation. “I had an objective, to clear my name and restart my life. … That’s not easy. This is what entrepreneurs face. You’re starting XYZ, nobody knows about you, people don’t believe in you. … I have my doubts every morning about CauseSquare. But you have to fight these internal voices and say, ‘I just spoke to three customers and they’re already paying me.’”
CauseSquare “is very important” for Mr. Arar, Ms. Mazigh says. “At the same time, it is very fragile, because he is still very fragile. I think it is important for him to start believing in himself and to start trying to do something on his own. … I think he’s ready.”