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When Rais Bhuiyan was in his early 20s, he won the lottery. That is, the State Department's annual visa lottery. The prize: a chance to immigrate to the U.S. and eventually become a citizen. So, Bhuiyan arrived in New York in 1999, full of excitement and optimism.
"I love the country, love the people, love the culture, and I felt I found my second home," Bhuiyan said
Bhuiyan had been an officer in the Bangladesh Air Force. His dream was to study and build a career in the technology field in the U.S., but it would take some time to settle in and save money. In the meantime, he moved to Dallas to work at a friend’s convenience store.
Four months after that move, his life — and the country — changed.
'Like A Horror Movie'
On Sept. 21, 2001, ten days after the 9/11 attacks, Bhuiyan was working an extra shift at the store. It was early afternoon and business was slow. Bhuiyan was reading the newspaper when a man holding a double-barrel shotgun walked into the shop. He thought it was a robbery.
Bhuiyan opened the register to offer the gunman money. Instead of taking the cash, the stranger gave Bhuiyan a piercing gaze.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
Before Bhuiyan could utter a full sentence, the gunman pulled the trigger.
"I felt like a million bees were stinging my face," Bhuiyan said. "I was bleeding so badly and I felt I was dying."
Stunned, bleeding and shaking, Bhuiyan couldn't manage dialing 911. Frantic, he ran to the barbershop next door and begged for help. That’s when he first caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror.
"I couldn’t believe that was my face," he said. "It was like a horror movie. I had become disfigured and losing blood and strength rapidly and I was begging God, please do not take me today."
The next thing Bhuiyan remembered was waking up in a hospital. The bullet had shattered the right side of his face and he lost vision in one eye. Still, he survived.
The gunman who tried to kill Bhuiyan murdered two other south Asian men within the span of three weeks.
The attacker, Mark Stroman, has a criminal record and white supremacist ties. He later admitted in court that he shot the three men as revenge for the 9/11 attacks.
Although Stroman didn’t take Bhuiyan’s life, he turned it upside down. Bhuiyan lost his job, his home and his sense of safety.
"I could not even go outside without that fear of getting killed or shot again," he said. "It was extremely painful to live a life like that ... I was frustrated because the shooting incident almost destroyed my life."
Bhuiyan’s American dream was in tatters. He spent the next few years picking up the pieces, trying to rebuild his life from rock-bottom.
In 2009, Bhuiyan, a devout Muslim, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca with his mother.
"It was a life-changing moment for me," he said. "I kept asking God, ‘why did you save my life? Why you gave me a second chance? What am I supposed to do with this life?'"
The answer eventually came to him: help prevent senseless violence.
Bhuiyan thought about Stroman, who was on death row for murdering two people in a hate crime.
"Instead of hating him, I saw him as a human being like me, not just a killer," Bhuiyan said. "I saw him as a victim, too, and I deeply felt by executing him we would simply lose a human life without dealing with the root cause.”
Bhuiyan said he believes in the goodness of people, despite everything that’s happened to him. Even so, his next move was unexpected.
He fought hard to save Stroman's life, and even sued then-governor Rick Perry to stop his execution.
Meanwhile, Stroman went through his own transformation during his time on death row. When he heard Bhuiyan was trying to save his life, he wrote to him to apologize for all the pain he caused. Stroman said he regretted all of the lessons he learned at the hands of an abusive stepfather.
Perry didn't grant the stay. Stroman's execution was scheduled for July 20, 2011. Hours before he died, he called Bhuiyan.
"I told him ‘Mark, I never hated you and I forgave you' ... he said ‘Rais, I never expected this from you. I love you, bro,' " Bhuiyan said. "As soon as he told me that, it just brought tears like a flood in my eyes."
The 41-year-old Mark Anthony Stroman died just before 9 p.m. In his final words, he said, "one second of hate will cause a lifetime of pain."
“We tried so hard to keep a human being alive ... it took a few seconds to kill this human being but what did we achieve? Nothing,” Bhuiyan said.
Breaking The Cycle
Mark left behind four children. One of them is 32-year-old Robert - or Rob - Stroman. Rob remembers the final phone with his father. At the time, Rob Stroman was in prison, too. He was sentenced to eight years for robbery.
"He told me ‘son, you have got to stay out of these places,' " Stroman said. " 'You have got to change.' ”
But he was on a destructive path. Before he went to prison a second time, on a drug charge, he got into a terrible accident.
Stroman remembers sitting in the hospital room in severe pain when an unexpected visitor showed up. At first, he thought the visitor had the wrong room but then he recognized him from the pellets left in his face.
"Last person on earth I expected to see," he said.
Bhuiyan heard what happened to Rob and wanted to check in.
"Why would this man take time out of his day to come up here and see me, somebody he owes nothing to and show an act of compassion like he did?" Stroman asked. "It blew my mind, really."
The younger Stroman is still serving a 14-year sentence but said he's turning his life around. He's taking a construction class to prepare himself for life outside of prison walls. He also said Bhuiyan has been an important friend and supporter.
"He wants me out there in the world," Stroman said. "I know if I genuinely need him, he’d be there."
Recently, Bhuiyan quit his full-time job in technology to lead his own non-profit called World Without Hate. His mission is to end the same cycles of violence and hate that have plagued people like Mark Stroman and his family.
“If we decide to get beyond hate, we can do it," Bhuiyan said. "Americans are capable of extraordinary compassion and grace when they open their hearts."
Bhuiyan's American dream has changed. Rather than focusing on his career, he's focusing on changing people's hearts. And he believes in that dream now more than ever.
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