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Never lose faith in hope and healing. I know because my wife helped me leave a life of violent extremism

Eight years ago, a documentary clip about the Ku Klux Klan went viral. It features a 32-year-old man and his 4-year-old son, both dressed in black-hooded KKK regalia. Together, they throw up Sieg Heil salutes and shout, “White power!”  

Today that clip fills me with horror. The disturbed father it depicts is me, and the 4-year-old boy is my son.  

I joined the KKK in 2015, largely because their racist views resonated with my own – a distorted worldview shaped by the bigotry and trauma I’d experienced growing up in an abusive home. For a year, I was an Imperial Nighthawk, providing security at events and rallies and disciplining members. Addiction was commonplace, and many of us used and sold meth.  

My lifestyle terrified my wife of five years. Fearing for the future of our kids and family, she turned to Google one day with a desperate plea: “How do I get my husband out of a hate group?”  

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The results led her to Arno Michaelis, a former leader of the world’s largest racist skinhead organization, who now helps people leave violent, extremist cults. Arno helped me see that beneath my hatred was deep trauma and pain. I needed healing—and to accomplish that, I needed help. 

Arno believed that Dr. Heval Mohamed Kelli, a Kurdish Syrian refugee and cardiologist, could provide it. And in fact, welcoming Heval into my life powerfully altered my world. His friendship allowed me to leave behind my hate and addiction, and it helped me become a truly compassionate husband, father and friend.  

A female and male member of the Virgil Griffin White Knights, a group that claims affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan, pose for a photograph in their robes ahead of a cross lighting ceremony at a private farm house in Carter County, Tennessee July 4, 2015. The Ku Klux Klan, which had about 6 million members in the 1920s, now has some 2,000 to 3,000 members nationally in about 72 chapters, or klaverns, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that monitors extremist groups. REUTERS/Johnny MilanoPICTURE 29 OF 34 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY "INSIDE THE KU KLUX KLAN"SEARCH "MILANO KKK" FOR ALL PICTURES - RTX1KJWX

Today, xenophobia is flourishing in our country. When I watch the news or scroll social media, I can sense a palpable fear of “the other.” It’s an anxiety that once controlled my life. It was rooted in my own unresolved trauma and a misunderstanding of others, especially Muslims. 

But once I began to process my past and form relationships with people in the Muslim community, my world expanded, friendships flourished and I began to heal.  

I believe our country can heal too. Most Americans are fundamentally compassionate and kind. Despite our differences, we all want the same thing for ourselves and each other: a peaceful society in which our families can thrive. 

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But to truly become the best version of ourselves, we’ve got to open ourselves to the people we fear – or even hate. We must mend the ruptures in our communities that were created by hate. We must work together toward peace. If I learned to do this, anyone can.   

I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, under the violent hand of my father. When under the influence, he’d often hit me – sometimes with extension cords, coat hangers, even wrenches. He went on multiday benders, and then returned home raging against non White people, whom he blamed for taking American jobs or our reliance on welfare. In truth, he couldn’t stay sober long enough to keep a job.  

At the time, I was terrified of him. But his bigoted remarks settled in the back of my head.  

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I was in high school when the Twin Towers fell, and the attack provided a convenient outlet for my trauma and self-hatred. I directed my fear and rage toward Muslims. 

At 17, I begged my mom to sign my Army enlistment papers. At 25, my best friend died in my arms in Afghanistan. After transitioning into the National Guard, I fell in love with a Kentucky woman while assisting with flood relief efforts in 2009. 

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But I also broke my back in a military truck accident. Before long, I’d become addicted to opiates.  

Enter the KKK, which recruited me via online radicalization and someone I knew at work. They gave me a job, took care of my family, and made me feel like I was part of something. 

My wife grew furious and afraid when she learned about my new affiliation. But she stuck by me, despite the urging of everyone in her life. Maybe that’s why I agreed to meet Arno, whom she encountered via that Google search.   

Still, I was skeptical of Heval. My Islamaphobia ran deep. And yet for months, Heval would text me, saying things like, “Hey man, I know about your past and it doesn’t bother me,” and “I want you to know I’m here for you,” and “If there is anything I can do for you, just let me know.”  

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In 2017, I agreed to talk with Heval, hoping he would leave me alone. To my surprise, we clicked immediately. We talked about fatherhood and our kids, who were the same age. It turned out we both had difficult childhoods. At 12, Heval’s family fled persecution in Syria. His family was granted asylum and were resettled in Clarkson, Georgia, in 2001. He arrived days after 9/11, just as I was finishing military training. We were both 18.  

Heval was easy to talk to, which scared me. I was closed off, suffering from shame. I didn’t think I deserved kindness or love. But he kept calling. A few months after our first conversation, I agreed to meet Heval in person.  

Today, we are like brothers. And our relationship has completely changed my understanding of Islam. It is not inherently violent, but like most faiths, full of richness and diversity. Heval taught me about his own community of Sufi Muslims and how they emphasize tolerance. I’ve now experienced this firsthand at Heval’s Ramadan celebrations and iftar dinners. 

Ten years ago, my attendance at one of these dinners would have been unimaginable. Today, it’s a family tradition that I attend alongside my wife, 9-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son – and we all love and cherish these experiences together. 

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I’m no longer that hateful man in that viral video. I’ve been an ambassador for the city of Clarkston, which is home to refugees from nearly 60 countries. I’m also an interventionist at Parents for Peace, where I help skinheads and Klansmen deradicalize. I offer them compassion and patience – exactly what Heval offered me. He is a heart doctor, but above all, he healed my spirit.  

I’m personally grateful for the policies that welcome people like Heval – without them, my life would very different right now. I know we live in a fractured country. I know many people harbor anger and fear. But if Heval taught me anything, it’s this: Against all odds, we can help each other heal. 

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