One night about six years ago, Basim Razzo was sitting at his computer in his home in Iraq when he stumbled across a TEDx lecture that spoke to him.
The 18-minute talk was called “A Radical Experiment in Empathy.” The speaker, half a world away, was Sam Richards, a sociology professor at Pennsylvania State University.
Imagine, Richards told his audience, being an ordinary Arab Muslim in Iraq or elsewhere in the Middle East and seeing your country invaded and ravaged by war.
“Can you feel their anger, their fear, their rage at what has happened to their country?” he asked.
Razzo, then in his early 50s, was one of those Arab Muslims. He spent his days working for a telecommunications company and his nights at home with his wife and daughter. He was so struck by the professor’s talk that he dashed off an email to Richards, praising him for getting it right.
Thus their correspondence was born. The two began to text and Skype. In 2012, Richards enlisted Razzo to speak to his class, remotely patching him in and bridging not just the 6,000 miles between the central Pennsylvania college town and an ancient Middle Eastern city but the political and cultural chasm between their countries.
Razzo’s on-screen appearance became a staple of Richards’ course at State College every semester after that.
Until the night of the accident.
That’s what Razzo calls the Sept. 20, 2015, bombing. The one that killed his wife, his daughter, his brother, and his nephew. The one that destroyed his house, broke his hip and foot, and hurt his back.
The one — by U.S. forces — that challenged his views on empathy. And forgiveness.
And ultimately would carry him to Penn State to deliver a powerful lesson.
A frantic post
Richards wasn’t sure what it said at first – it was in Arabic — but could tell something was wrong. Then he translated it.
“In the middle of the night coalition airplanes targeted two houses occupied by innocent civilians. Is this U.S. technology?” the message said. “This barbarian attack cost me the lives of my wife, daughter, brother, and nephew. May they rest in peace and may Allah almighty accept them as martyrs.”
Richards was in disbelief.
He immediately sent Razzo a text message and they started talking. Razzo poured out the horrifying details: He was sleeping, his wife no more than a foot from him, his daughter in her room. There was a devastating sound, an awful smell. He thought he was having a nightmare until he looked up and saw his roof gone, the stars visible. He tried to stand, and fell.
Even his dog was killed.
The two men had corresponded for years, but in a slightly detached, almost collegial way. Their talks about life in their respective countries had typically been framed as sociological conversations.
The bombing removed any remaining barriers. They were friends, and one had endured an unspeakable tragedy. Their conversations soon grew deeply personal. Sometimes, they’d Skype for hours.
Death – its impact and meaning – is a theme that has shaped Richards’ life and infused his work. He lost his father at age 9.
At 57, he’s a spiritual agnostic but frequently fingers prayer beads as he lectures. The beads keep him focused and remind him he could die at any moment.
More than 20 years ago, he and his wife resolved to write inspirational essays to sustain the surviving spouse after one dies. Each starts with a pithy quote from one of their letters to each other during times they were apart. Together, they wrote 365 – one for every day of the year – and now store them in a wooden box that sits on their dining room shelf and bears the inscription: “Becoming Eternal.”
After the bombing, they were desperate to help Razzo, but were at a loss as to what they should do.
Since college — he got his bachelor’s and master’s from the University of Toledo and his doctorate from Rutgers, where he met Mulvey — Richards has traveled to more than 40 countries, through Latin America and the Middle East, Ukraine, Prague, Spain. But with the semester underway, going to Iraq wasn’t viable.
In their classes, the couple challenge students to see the world from different perspectives, to open their minds. (Mulvey, also a Penn State professor, heads the World in Conversation center on campus, where students connect almost daily with people around the globe.)
Richards’ courses are wildly popular. The one on race and cultural relations is touted as the largest of its kind in the United States, drawing more than 750 students each semester. Videos of his lectures are posted online.
“Step outside of your tiny little world,” Richards says in one. “Step inside the tiny little world of someone else.”
In another class, Muslim students were filmed putting their hijabs on Western women. And in another, an Iranian soldier Skyped in and talked with two American soldiers, one of whom had lost both legs in combat.
“I hold everyone’s neck against the wall,” says the professor, trim and stylish, with salt-and-pepper hair and multiple ear piercings. “Everyone’s going to be uncomfortable at some point.”
Six months after the bombing, Richards asked Razzo if he would resume his talks with Penn State students.
At first, Razzo declined. He still was searching for answers about the deadly attack. A video posted online by U.S. coalition forces claimed his house was an ISIS facility to make car bombs, which he knew was a flat-out lie.
And, he told Richards, he was afraid he couldn’t tell his story without breaking down.
“It’s OK. You can cry,” Richards told him. “Trust me. … My students need to hear your story.”
A little more than a year after the bombing, Razzo was ready. On a December 2016 day, he dialed in from Erbil and spoke for nearly an hour. While his previous guest appearances were about living in Iraq and conditions in a war zone, this was all about the deadly bombing.
He assured students he doesn’t hate Americans. Upon hearing his story, some cried. When it was over, they told Richards they wanted to hear more, they wanted to meet him.
They started a collection to bring Razzo to campus.
An engineering student
Razzo had been born in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, but was no stranger to the U.S. In 1980, he moved to Michigan to live with an uncle and attend college. He graduated from Western Michigan University in 1988 with a degree in industrial engineering. While there, he made friends with Americans, had dinner with them, went to the movies with them, attended their weddings, laughed at their jokes.
By then, he had married Mayada, who had joined him from Iraq. They had hoped to remain in the United States, but returned home at the request of Razzo’s parents.
He was drafted into the Iraqi army corps of engineers and served for 2½ years, through the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and its liberation by a U.S.-led coalition. Then he helped manage the family pharmacy business.
When U.S forces invaded Iraq in 2003, they were friendly, Razzo found. But when the resistance started, things changed, he said. In his view, America broke Iraq and has yet to fix it.
That’s why he was so heartened by listening to Richards, who seemed to be trying to understand the Iraqi plight. He became a regular devotee of the professor’s lectures.
Imagine, Richards challenged his audience during the empathy lecture, if China 100 years ago had invaded the United States, extracted its coal, and become extremely wealthy, while many in the U.S were suffering in economic despair.
“Can you imagine what you would feel?” he asked. “… If you can, that’s empathy.”
For Razzo, life in Mosul became extremely difficult once ISIS invaded in 2014, arresting people and interfering in the schools. His son, then 24, went to live in Erbil, about 60 miles away. When members of ISIS caught his nephew with a shirt bearing English writing and a haircut they deemed Marine-like, they shaved his head and whipped him, Razzo said. Razzo, his wife, and daughter spent much of their time on their three-acre property, shutting out trouble around them.
The battle to liberate Mosul from the Islamic State took its toll, with U.S. air strikes destroying parts of the city and ISIS already having destroyed the rest.
After Razzo’s house was hit, he went to Turkey for surgery. His physical ailments, however, were only part of his recovery. He wanted to clear his name.
He reached out to Richards, who remembered that a former student worked in the State Department. Richards called her; she called someone else. And the next thing Razzo knew, he was invited to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
A journalist from the New York Times also began investigating civilian casualties from U.S. airstrikes, including Razzo’s case. Ultimately, the newspaper helped prove the U.S. had mistakenly bombed his house. “The UnCounted,” a magazine article published last November, detailed the bombing and showed that some Iraqi civilian deaths — including those of Razzo’s family — were not being counted in the official U.S. toll of civilian casualties.
Razzo credits the newspaper and his friend, Richards, with helping him reveal the truth. Without them, he says, “I would still be uncounted.”
A week after Razzo spoke to Richards’ class last fall, Richards asked him to come to Penn State. He agreed.
He was watching Penn State’s football team in the Fiesta Bowl in January — and texting with Richards — when he got word that his application for a visa had been approved.
‘I want to introduce you to my friend’
Richards was waiting when Razzo pulled up to his State College home on April 8. Both men fought back tears as they embraced.
As they entered the house, Razzo gave him a set of beads from Iraq.
Walking into the dining room, the visitor spotted the shelf with the wooden box — and the couple’s eternity essays. “Hey, there’s the book!” Razzo said.
Richards was astonished. He didn’t know Razzo had seen the lecture where the couple discussed it.
Not only had he watched it, Razzo said, “I cried.”
On Wednesday, Iraqi folk music was playing in the spacious lecture hall when he and Richards entered. More than 700 students had streamed in for Richards’ class, Race and Ethnic Relations.
“I want to introduce you to my friend, Basim,” Richards told the crowd, holding the beads that Razzo had given him.
Razzo stood. The two men embraced, then turned their backs to the crowd as Richards snapped a selfie. Then Razzo turned back to the students: “Hello, I’m Basim. I come from Iraq. I am an Arab. I’m a Muslim. … I’m so happy to be here with you guys.”
Over 75 minutes, Razzo told the crowd about his “loving” wife and daughter who “always takes my side,” and his son, the only one left, who is married and expecting a baby. He recounted the night of the bombing and his ensuing ordeal, once lowering the microphone, his lip quivering with emotion.
He still takes painkillers and needs a follow-up operation on his pelvis, he said. He now lives in Erbil but sometimes returns to Mosul to visit his mother. He mourns the destruction of his city.
Razzo has asked the United States for a letter of apology, which he said he has not received. Instead, he said a military lawyer offered him $15,000, more than the going rate of about $2,000 per civilian death. He declined the money, seeing it as an insult to compensate for the loves of his life. A Washington lawyer has offered to represent him pro bono in dealing with the government.
As Razzo spoke, the lecture hall was silent, the students rapt. Everything happens for a predetermined reason, he told them. Even the bombing of his home. It somehow led him across the globe, to their classroom in central Pennsylvania.
He encouraged students to see other parts of the world, and to see and feel as others do.
“Empathy made me meet this guy,” he said, turning to Richards. “I believe in empathy. You have to put yourselves in the shoes of the other before you do anything.”
Near the front, a tearful Brian Anthony Davis, 22, a senior from Philadelphia, sat and listened intently. He said he had lost a dozen friends and a cousin, most of them to gun violence, since he started at Penn State, two of them in the last couple of weeks.
“How do you move forward when you lose your whole family,” he asked Razzo.
“I will not lie: Sometimes, I just break down and cry,” Razzo told him.
Angela Wood, 19, a sophomore from Lancaster, approached from the middle of the audience.
“I lost my father,” she told Razzo. “If someone had offered me $2,000 for his life, I cannot imagine just how disrespected. … I just wanted to kind of apologize for that.”
At the end, the entire hall gave him a standing ovation. Then dozens of students streamed to the front to hug Razzo and thank him for his message.
Jonathan Boyle, 21, a sophomore from New York City, told the Iraqi he was 3 when 9/11 happened, but he still can remember the sound, the smell, the terror.
“I did have a fear of Muslims as a whole and the Middle East for a very long time,” he confessed to Razzo. “But you put a human face to that. I just want to say thank you.”