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The Day I Met Omar

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Note: This week's column was written by Craig Kielburger.

The day I met Omar Khadr was the most terrifying day of my life.

I was sitting in a meeting room in Islamabad shaking. Omar's presence was oddly comforting.

It was Jan. 1996 and the two of us were waiting in a five-star hotel for then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien. I had just turned 13. I was traveling through South Asia learning firsthand about child labor. The Prime Minister was also in the region. A week earlier I said at a press conference that the he had a moral responsibility to do something about child labor.

He heard about it. Then, he penciled me into his schedule in Islamabad. I was terrified.

Looking back, it was actually kind of comical. Here I was nervous about meeting with the Shawinigan Strangler when I was sitting next to Canada's first family of terrorism.

That morning I walked into the hotel lobby and was immediately surrounded by the reporters. It was my first scrum and it did nothing to calm my nerves. When the Khadr family walked in and the reporters shouted their name, I didn't know who they were but was thankful they had taken the attention.

We made our way to a waiting room - me, my mentor Alam, Mrs. Khadr and her brood of kids, including nine-year-old Omar.

Mrs. Khadr was pleading the case of her husband. Ahmed Said Khadr was imprisoned in Pakistan for his role in the car bombing at the Egyptian Embassy that killed 17 people. She claimed he was wrongly accused and was being tortured. I felt sympathy looking into the faces of her worried children.

Omar and I smiled at each other. It was comforting sitting with a kid so close to my own age. We exchanged a few words and I learned we were both from nearby neighborhoods in Toronto. I breathed a bit easier as we reminisced about our hometown.

An aide then told me it was my turn. I said goodbye as the kids were given some candy to ease their nerves.

In our 15 minute meeting, Chretien talked a lot about trade laws before sighing and promising to bring up child labor with Pakistan's Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. My last thought of the Khadr family was wondering if they were able to make anymore headway.

Weeks later, I returned home to a firestorm of media attention. Many asked how I had accomplished so much as such a young age. Years later when I learned that the boy I met in Pakistan allegedly killed an American soldier in a firefight in Afghanistan, I wondered if anyone asked him that question.

It dawned on me that people thought my 13-year-old self did something kids shouldn't be capable of doing. But, when Omar was pushed into weapons training at 10, apparently he should have known better.

Really though, the two of us are products our environment. Omar is just being punished for his.

Omar and I were born in the same city, but we come from very different places. My parents never considered themselves activists per se. But my Mom worked with street youth drop-in centre and my dad volunteered with mentally challenged individuals. They found fulfillment in these experiences and they encouraged my brother and I to find our own.

That influence ultimately led me to Pakistan in 1996. I didn't realize it at the time, but while I made the choice to be there, Omar didn't.

Growing up in Toronto, Omar liked comics and his siblings described an impression he used to do of Captain Haddock form the comic Tintin. His teachers described him as smart and eager to learn. Of course, they didn't see the enormous pressure he father applied.

Whereas most kids are encouraged to become doctors or lawyers, the Khadr boys grew up holding suicide bombers in the highest admiration. Their father threatened death if they ever betrayed Islam. Omar, said to be the closest to Ahmed, didn't want to disappoint.

That explained the apparent worry on Omar's face in Pakistan. He had seen his father in trouble before. A few years earlier, Omar had refused to leave Ahmed's bedside while he recuperated from near-deadly injuries after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan.

This childhood defined by fear, family loyalty and intense pressure led him to that Islamabad hotel. When his childhood led him to battle, it would come back to haunt him.

Mrs. Khadr and her kids got a lot of sympathy that day as many questioned why the Prime Minister was unwilling to help her husband, a Canadian citizen. Chretien was good to his word though. He brought up both of our issues with Bhutto. I'm not sure what she said about child labor, but she did assure Khadr would receive fair trial.

Weeks later, his charges were dropped. Most Canadians, myself included, forgot about the incident. Then, after Sept 11, the Khadr name resurfaced - this time linked to Osama bin Laden.

As, it turned out, that meeting with Chretien had a major impact on the both of us. For me, the increased media attention had allowed Free The Children to gain a foothold. We were growing quickly. The boy whose mother led him by the hand through a scrum of reporters saw his father released from prison. Just months later, the father had him learning to make bombs and wield an assault rifle in weapons training.

This one fateful moment changed the course of both of our lives. So much so that when 15-year-old Omar turned up nearly dead at Bagram Detention Centre, he had spent his childhood training as a child soldier.

For years, the Canadian government has been unwilling to risk repatriation after Omar's father's betrayal. His mother only worsened the sentiment by reappearing on television to denounce Western democracy.

The 24-year-old Khadr we see in the headlines today bears little resemblance to the nervous nine-year-old I saw accepting candy from Chretien's political and instead looks more like his father. It's unfair for any kid to have to live up to their parents. It's especially so when you're a Khadr.

Today, the end of Khadr's legal battles is seemingly drawing to a close. But for the boy I met in Pakistan, he was dealt a sentence through his family name.