The Freedom Fighter
Majed El Shafie’s escape from hell unfolded as though scripted in Hollywood.
Jailed in Cairo’s Abu Zaabel prison – a place so notorious locals refer to it as Hell on Earth – for his outspoken devotion to Christianity, the young Egyptian managed to white-knuckle his way through seven days of torture launched when he refused to reveal names of fellow worshippers. First, his captors stripped him naked and shaved his head, which was doused under boiling and then frigid water; next, they hung the 22-year-old law student upside down and beat him with belts. Then came the cigarettes, which they used to brand his skin with burn marks.
When all of that failed to weaken El Shafie’s resolve (his arrest had been sanctioned by two of El Shafie’s influential uncles – one held a high government post and another a Supreme Court seat), his captors tore out his toenails, one by one. As last resort, they attempted to crucify him. Tied by his wrists and ankles to a cross and left to hang for more than two days, El Shafie’s back was knifed open in several places. His captors poured salt and lemon into the open wounds. While El Shafie lost consciousness, he managed to hang on. When he woke up, he found himself in a hospital bed where he would remain, under arrest, for several months. When he was well enough, his captors moved him to a house, where he was held as the clock ran out on the grim sentence he was given for fighting for freedom of religion: death.
“My uncle is the one who asked the court for the death penalty,” El Shafie recounted recently at his office in downtown Toronto, where a portrait of Martin Luther King and a copy of the Canadian Chater of Rights and Freedoms overlook his desk. “He wanted to wash the shame from the family by killing me.”
But El Shafie isn’t one to surrender. The night before he was to be executed, he awoke to his friends mounting a distraction that occupied the guards; in the midst of it, El Shafie managed to escape from a window and flee to Alexandria, a north Egyptian coastal city. While police plastered the region with posters bearing El Shafie’s picture and the nearly $100,000 bounty on his head, he hid underground, plotting the next leg of his escape. Every few days, friends would bring him food to keep him alive.
When El Shafie was finally strong enough to make his move, he stole a Jet Ski and rode it across the Red Sea to freedom in Israel, where he surrendered himself to government officials. They would keep him in custody while Amnesty International and the UNHCR, the United Nations’ Refugee Agency, investigated his claims of persecution. “Legally, I could not stay in Israel but, if I went back to Egypt, I would have been executed – this I know for certain,” El Shafie writes in his book, Freedom Fighter (also the subject of a documentary of the same name). After 16 months, El Shafie was granted status as a political refugee by Denmark, Australia and Canada. The young Christian chose Canada. He arrived here a dozen years ago, when he was 25.
Ever since, El Shafie has had his sights set on retirement. But not for the reasons you might think.
Once he was settled in Toronto, El Shafie didn’t waste much time before setting up One Free World International (OFWI), a non-profit organization with offices in 28 countries and more than 600 staff spread around the world. Funded solely via donations, its mission is to assist – and often outright rescue – persecuted minorities from some of the most conflict-ridden areas in the world, including (but not limited to) Christians who suffer religious persecution.
“I used to be one of those people. I know exactly what they are going through,” said El Shafie, dressed in a suit and wielding a buzzing BlackBerry, from behind his desk in a sparse high-rise office. “I still have the scars on my body – they are my medals of honour because I stood for what I believed. I’m one of the lucky ones able to stand again on his own feet. Now I have two options: I can be a victim or a victor. So I’ve decided to fight back.”
Doing so has drawn El Shafie to the front lines of some of the world’s most notorious conflict zones in recent years, including Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh and most recently, Iraq. While he initially set out specifically to help persecuted minorities in Egypt, El Shafie no longer draws a distinction between which minorities merit his help. Instead, he uses the horrors a family has suffered as his scale and he doesn’t shy away from paying bribes – sometimes tens of thousands of dollars’ worth – and telling lies if it will help him ferry a person or family at risk to freedom.
“It doesn’t matter which kind of minority we are talking about, whether they are Christian, Jews, Hindu, Buddhist, Yazidis, Muslims, Falun Gongs,” he said. “If they are in need of real help … I don’t care about nationality, sex, religion, sexual orientation.”
Born into a prominent Muslim family of lawyers in Egypt, El Shafie knows much about loss. His father died when he was still an infant and his mother died when he was 16. Although his family worshipped Islam, El Shafie became curious about Christianity as a teenager when his best friend, Tamir, gave him a Bible. “He told me I would find all the answers I needed in its pages,” El Shafie said. “I studied this book carefully in the days and weeks to come and, little by little, although it was dangerous to turn my back on Islam, the faith of my family for generations, the love of Christ began to open my heart.”
Embracing Christianity in Egypt is indeed dangerous; at any given time, El Shafie said, several thousands of Egyptians remain imprisoned in their own country for rejecting Islam in favour of Jesus Christ. As a law student, El Shafie began to realize the persecution taking place; he would see this first-hand at a demonstration a few months before he was arrested. There, he watched helplessly as his friend Tamir threw himself in front of a police bullet aimed at El Shafie. “The bullet went right through his heart,” El Shafie recounts, still tearing up at the memory. Before he died, Tamir rasped a plea to El Shafie: “Continue the fight.”
Those words have both inspired and shaped El Shafie’s life ever since. He would go on, aware that it is illegal to build a Christian church in his birth country, to build a ministry “to bring the Christian community all the same legal rights that the Muslim community had always enjoyed,” he writes in his book. In two years, he said, the ministry grew to 24,000 followers; to house them, he built two “churches” in mountain caves and also launched a school for the poor, a medical clinic and a newspaper to lobby the Egyptian government for equal rights for Christians.
As his profile grew, his family would turn firmly away from him.
“My family has disowned me. I didn’t do anything wrong to them – I just believed in what I believed in,” he said, adding: “What’s really bothering me the most is … the hatred I feel from them.”
Indeed, El Shafie would sense that hatred acutely when police, with the blessing of his uncles, showed up at his doorstep to arrest him and drag him off for torturing.
Steve Long, senior pastor at Toronto’s Catch the Fire church, where El Shafie worships and frequently takes the podium to request donations for his causes, said his friend has managed to use his awful experience as a constant motivation.
“He is a rare person who lives for other people,” said Long, who has known El Shafie for as long as he has run OFWI. The pair meet for meals every other month and talk regularly on the phone about the blurred borders between El Shafie’s personal and professional lives. “Other than having some nice suits and a dog, he doesn’t have much,” Long said. “He goes through life with great heaviness, great responsibilities.”
El Shafie doesn’t disagree with this view. “Sometimes I don’t eat to save money to pay for saving somebody’s life,” he said, adding: “You do what you have to do to feed people and save their lives.”
El Shafie uses a wide slate of contacts, from minorities on the ground in conflict zones to well-placed government officials, to stay updated on geopolitical events and their related human rights issues. He regularly appears in Ottawa and also takes Canadian members of parliament, regardless of their political affiliations, on pilgrimages to some of the hottest danger zones. He has also spoken in front of the American Congress many times and at the UN. His hope? That the officials will be so inspired that they will report back to the government – lobby, even – on the need for specific aid or intervention.
Despite his close relationship with Ottawa, El Shafie maintains that he has no political allegiances. “When the government makes mistakes, whoever they are, we have to criticize them,” he said. “We are not cheerleaders. We’re human rights advocates.”
In a deliberate effort to maintain distance from the government, El Shafie has also shied away from seeking charitable status for OFWI. While having it might make collecting donations easier, El Shafie worries it would subject him to unfair controls. “The problem with [being a] charity is that you’re under the thumb of the government.”
El Shafie has created a substantial public profile for himself. He counts as personal friends several influential elected officials. His work does have a dark underbelly, though: he has drawn the ire of a wide swath of detractors. He regularly receives threat-filled voicemails and deliberately keeps his office and home address unpublished. “People will call, people will email us: ‘We’ll kill you. We’ll hunt you down.’ So our office address is not found on the website. At home, I have security always. I have private cars that keep changing,” he explained, adding: “Some people here in the community don’t like the work we do.”
Pastor Long regularly checks in with El Shafie to discuss his motives. “One of the things I’ve talked to him about is does he have a death wish? My thing to him is, ‘What you do is more important than you becoming a martyr … with no one to carry on your project.’ I think he knows … he’s supposed to be alive for a long time.”
None of this, however, has dampened El Shafie’s efforts.
“I’ve been shot at five times in the last seven years,” he said, adding that he is not afraid to die. “You know what I’m scared of? I’m scared to wake up in the morning knowing that I didn’t do my best to help others … [that] I left somebody behind. I don’t want … to have my perfect life and know other people are still suffering,” he said, adding: “I’m looking forward to the day that I can retire. But sadly, our business has been booming recently.”
As last summer wound to a close, El Shafie spent a particularly hot Friday afternoon juggling phone calls from the Turkish government and making final preparations for his most daring trip of the year – a journey to assess conditions in Turkey, Armenia and finally, in Iraq. At the time, the Islamic State, or ISIS, was gaining ground across vast areas of the country and beginning to rival Al Qaeda as the most powerful jihadist group in the world. In the months to come, the terrorists would solidify their stature, making headlines for a range of horrors, including the beheading of 21 Coptic Chrisitans who had travelled to Libya seeking work only to meet their gruesome deaths on a beach.
“Am I surprised? I am not,” El Shafie said of the deaths of his fellow Egyptian Christians. “I’m sad and broken-hearted.”
On his travels to Iraq, though, El Shafie’s focus is fixed on ISIS’ terrorizing of the Yazidis, a minority group settled at the base of the Sinjar mountain range in the country’s north. “What is happening to the minorities at the hands of ISIS is the holocaust of our time,” he says.
El Shafie had collected reports that more than 7,000 Yazidi women had been stolen by ISIS militants and plunged into a vicious sex trade. “They are selling them in the market like sheep,” El Shafie said, his voice nearing a growl. “It’s estimated that almost every Yazidi girl can be sold 20 times per day, depending on her age and beauty. That means she can be raped 20 times per day,” he said. OFWI is involved directly
or indirectly in rescue missions to save these girls. On a trip to the region this March, his group was also able to deliver medications to the refugee camps.
Brad Butt, the Conservative member of Parliament for Mississauga-Streetsville, Ont., accompanied El Shafie on his late summer trip. He said the credibility of El Shafie’s organization, which gets no government funding, “went up a hundredfold” the first time he took a trip, which was to India.
“It’s not a junket. I’m not over there to lie on a beach. I’m there to meet with persecuted religious minorities, to listen to their stories … and to meet with officials,” he said. In Iraq, El Shafie took Butt directly to the ravaged Yazidis. What the pair found nearly brought them to their knees.
“[ISIS] indiscriminately decides they’re going to attack a community in the middle of the night. And they just start shooting. We saw hundreds and hundreds of children who’d been orphaned or in some other way impacted … these are children that are going to have emotional and physical scars for a lifetime,” Butt said.
“The conditions are squalor. These people have had to run for their lives – it was something to not just completely break down and cry in front of them,” Butt said. “In my lifetime, I don’t think I’ve ever heard somebody recount stories like this to me, sitting in the dirt on the ground in their tent.”
Because of El Shafie’s connections, the MP and his comrades met for lunch with the director of health for the regional government. What they learned of residents’ needs – medicine, supplies to weather an unbelievably tough winter without shelter – will influence what information they deliver to Canadian aid officials. “There is more that the international community can do to make sure there is proper support. And I was only ever going to find out what the direct real need is on the ground by being there and listening,” he said, adding: “I wasn’t going to get that from TV or newspaper articles.”
Upon his return from the front lines in Iraq, El Shafie was haunted by night terrors for nearly a week. This is not new – he has suffered from nightmares ever since he was tortured in Egypt and has even grown to take strange comfort in them. “I will tell you something about my nightmares – they help me remember. I just want to remember. I don’t want to forget,” he said.
But the nightmares after the Iraq trip were different; almost immediately he felt compelled to plan another trip to the front lines, which he took in March. “I came back sick and I don’t know if I was sick physically or emotionally,” he said. “Thirty to 40 per cent of the refugees we saw were kids under the age of 18. It’s a generation. These kids will grow up without family – this is the generation we have to protect. What we’re really trying to focus on is helping them on their own ground,” he said, adding: “Taking somebody out of their home is really a last resort solution.”
And yet, this is where El Shafie excels.
His most shining triumphs as head of OFWI involve a slate of successful efforts – some of which unfolded over a period of years – to help persecuted individuals and their families gain asylum in Canada.
Tehseen Daniel, a 35-year-old who gained Canadian citizenship in 2014, is one of them. Part of a Christian family living in Lahore, Pakistan, Tehseen, her father and her two siblings became the target of Islamic fundamentalists in 2004. At first, the family’s tormentors phoned their home to issue threats; when that didn’t deter the Daniels from attending church, they began hiding out to intercept family members on their way home from work and school. A failed kidnapping attempt on Tehseen, then a nursing student, and her sister, a fashion design student, escalated the situation.
“A few days later, we got a call. They said, ‘Okay, this time your daughter escaped, but next time we’ll not leave them. We’ll take them and we will kill your whole family’,” she said, adding: “Because it was a matter of religion, the police ignored it.”
Next, her brother was abducted. “They took him to the graveyard and beat him badly. They used a very sharp knife and started cutting him where there are tattooed crosses on his arm. They said if you will convert to Islam, we will leave you. Otherwise, we will kill your whole family.”
The final straw came when Tehseen’s elderly father was abducted and beaten nearly to death. The family emptied their savings to pay a ransom and promptly booked tickets to Canada – paid for by relatives who had already immigrated – where they planned to file refugee claims. Both Tehseen and her sister took jobs at Tim Hortons to pay bills; the family was barely scraping by when, in 2008, they learned the Canadian government had rejected their claim. They were ultimately served with a deportation order, which felt like a death sentence.
“When we got that, we were so scared, we didn’t know what to do,” Tehseen said. “Once we land in Pakistan, they would rape us, threaten us, kill us. We decided we’d rather die in Canada. We’ll never go back to Pakistan.”
With just hours before the clock ran out on their stay in Canada, a friend connected the Daniels with El Shafie. He agreed to take on their case but issued a warning that they’d have to quit their jobs and live underground while he worked on their file. After nearly two years, El Shafie won the Daniels a permanent stay in Canada.
“Now, we are free and we are so happy,” Tehseen recounted recently. “Majed came into our life like an angel. He is our Moses. When he sees someone going through persecution … he tries his best to go beyond expectations to save their lives. Only once in a blue moon are those kinds of people born on earth.”
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