From prison to Saint Paul University, was it a coincidence?

During my first class for my master’s innovation, my professor Amanda Wilson asked me how I found out about this program. I told her that I met someone that introduced me to someone else that recommended this program. The truth is, that first person was my mentor Roy whom I met in prison. At that point, I never wanted to tell anyone about my prison experience. I spent two and a half years in jail, and now I am completing my master’s in social innovation at Saint Paul University. Part of my master’s degree is that I have to present an educational workshop for the CRITS. I have no idea what came over me to have the courage to speak about this part of my life, but most likely was my mentor Roy who said that my story could help others overcome. This text is my story, how it started, it went wrong and how I pulled myself back from the abyss. As I am a student of social innovation, I realized that my lived experiences could be helpful not only for others to learn about my mistakes and transform their lives and for those researching this topic. This remarkable transformation is a long story, and if you want to hear it all, you can watch my seminar at his link:

Here is the short version.

I was born in Kuwait and moved to Canada when I was 11 years old, right at the beginning of the Kuwait Iraq war. My father had lived in Kuwait and was a refugee of Palestinian origin. When he was 12 years old, he moved to Kuwait to work and care for his family. Imagine leaving a war zone and moving to another country at 12 years old and crossing multiple borders as a child. He took odd jobs serving tea, selling gum, and other products to cars stopped at the traffic lights. Then as he got stronger, he became a labourer, saved some money, bought a truck, and started a transportation business. My father worked hard. He expanded his business to owning ten trucks before Iraq invaded Kuwait. Then, war came into his life again, so our family decided to pack up and move to Canada. My dad’s thriving business was left behind in Kuwait. He lost everything for the second time, and he was never the same. My father had lost his drive and did not have the motivation or the energy to rebuild again, so he became distant. I was 11 years old and did not understand the impact of war and losing my home. 

Landing in Ottawa

I landed in Ottawa – a new country, a new culture, and a new language. I did not speak a word of English. At 11 years old, that alone made me timid, shy, and gullible. I was also the smallest person in the school. I attended elementary school from grades six to eight, and I was so excited to have a locker, just like I saw in the movies. The locker came with a surprise.  Larger boys often told tiny me that they would fight me after school. My family escaped fighting to live in a country of peace. In a land of peace, how can people be so cruel? I was terrified. To avoid them, I started leaving my locker unlocked to open it and close it quickly so I could run to the bus stop.

The bullies took an entire row behind me in grade ten math class. Giants surrounded me. They gave me a nickname, “VD.” They would say this right in front of my teacher. The teacher did nothing. I was still learning English, so I had no idea what it meant, and I asked my English teacher. She explained that VD meant venereal disease and asked me why I wanted to know. Now that I knew what it meant, I looked into her eyes for safety. Nothing, my English teacher, did not react.  Have you ever been let down by someone whose job is to protect you?

The intensity of the verbal, psychological, and physical bullying I experienced led me to believe that I was meant to be kicked around like a soccer ball. I eventually figured out that I could slow down the bullying if I gave away my lunch, snacks or bought them lunch.  Now I felt a sense of relief because this would lower the intensity of the bullying. I realized that I needed to do things for people to survive and to be liked, so I had become a people pleaser. In high school, poutine was about $1.50, so I needed about $6 a day or $30 a week to buy safety. Since my parents were poor, they could not provide me with enough money to support my habit.  To raise money, I learned to steal. I stole health supplements like creatine and sold them. I was so desperate that it never occurred to me that this was a bad idea.

I stole my way through high school and university.  University would be a fresh start. I could live everyday life without bullies, free of emotional and psychological turbulence. Yes, I was free of bullies, but I also lacked social skills, and I never learned how to interact positively with others.  When I went to the cashier, I walked away instead of politely asking for any money they owed me. I didn’t know how to ask; I did not know how to talk to people. Without social skills, I became indescribably lonely and depressed.  Without people, I had a lot of time to myself. Without bullies, I started to bully myself.  My inner voice called me a new nickname… “loser.”.  “Loser” was my new truth, informed by a lifetime of evidence.  Do you know this voice…”loser”…?  That voice became my new best friend… my only friend. He always knew best and always put me down… “Loser.”

I graduated from university in 2002 with a Bachelor of Commerce at 22 years old and started to work.  I was utterly lost, trying to find myself and figure out life for the next six years. I was still plagued with low self-esteem and suffered from mental distress. I was able to hide it from people, but nobody saw what was happening inside me, so I became good at pretending to be an average person.  I was very inexperienced and immature. Sometimes, I could not even tell if people were joking with me or insulting me.  Everything was confusing because I missed the crucial stages of my social development due to the bullying.

How I Ended Up In Prison

One day, I noticed some people I often saw hanging around outside my neighbourhood. They were confident; they knew how to dress; they knew how to talk to girls.  They were cool and possessed the confidence that I wanted; I just wanted to be liked and have some cool friends. Somehow, I found the nerve to go outside and introduce myself, or more accurately, I hovered around until they presented themselves.  My new friends immediately liked that I had my place. They would come over and hang out. They used my apartment for getting together, often in the middle of the night after going to the clubs. I started to go with them to the clubs. They trusted me, and I trusted them. I got involved in their various business activities, and in December 2011, I was pulled over by the police. They used different words to describe my newfound social skills. They described my friends and me as a criminal organization and our business enterprises as drug trafficking. I was so desperate to fit in that it never occurred to me that this was a bad idea. I was charged, convicted, and sentenced to prison for seven years. Now I clearly understood – this was a terrible idea.

The police loaded me onto the back of a prisoner truck for a two-hour ride to Kingston. I was at the gates of the prison, and it looked like a massive university campus. It had lovely architecture like those old American universities that you see in the movies.  We entered the assessment unit, where they evaluate the level of security you require and transfer you to the appropriate part of the prison.  A prison is a place where they tell you when to eat, sleep, and wake up. Nothing is negotiable here.   Prisoners in the assessment unit have just been sentenced, so they are highly agitated, angry, and on edge.  Prison is supposed to be about rehabilitation, but I felt something else in the air as I walked in.  The psychological atmosphere was oppressive, like a heavy fog pressing down on you with the weight of suspicion, terror, bullying, negativity, and punishment.  I felt tension with other prisoners and with the prison staff. These tensions were ignited and fueled by distrust and paranoia from both sides. My nickname quickly became the cancer patient – 150 pounds of skin and bones.

In prison, these tensions and paranoias are larger than life. At any moment, something terrible can happen when you least expect it, and you need to react fast. You can slight someone so quickly, like simply sitting at their table. You don’t even know what you did to offend them most of the time.

Life Changing Prison Fight

One day, I was in the bathroom. This guy walks up to me, mumbling and screaming. He is about 200 pounds of muscle, and I was skin and bones… 150. This is one of those guys nobody ever crosses, and everyone detours around him because he always gets his way with anyone.

As he was walking toward me, I walked back my thoughts to see if I slighted him so I could offer him an explanation.   Perhaps I was brushing my teeth the wrong way – I have no idea.  Do you ever feel that something terrible is about to happen and there is no escape route?  Suddenly, everyone and everything stopped.  The water faucets went dry, and guys stuck their heads out the shower curtains to see the commotion.  Now, everyone was staring at me.

Now, he is screaming at me. I tell him, “I’m sorry for whatever I did. Honestly!” I’m so busy apologizing that I didn’t see him throw a barrage of punches at my face.  He was all over me, and I am holding on for dear life. I’m hugging him to minimize the beating, and it feels like I’m riding a bull in a rodeo! Then it dawns upon me that I’m not hurt yet; I don’t feel any pain, and I have control of his body. So, I picked him up over my head and threw him to the floor by animal instinct.  We look at each other. I’m as stunned as he is that I just body-slammed him.

He was stumbling to get up, so I jumped on his back and choked him. I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m choking him with my legs around him so he can’t get out. We fall to the ground. As I pray for God to help me, his body suddenly limps; he passes out, and I push him off me. I stand up and stare at him. As he tries to get up, I walk away, return to my cell, and lock the door, so he can’t follow me. I’m safe.

On that day, I conquered my biggest fear of not being able to defend myself. This fight turned everything around for me, and something arose from it that followed me throughout my time in prison.  I walked around just a little straighter and just a little taller. I gained confidence because I defended myself against a larger, very tough, and scary person. It wasn’t a boastful self-confidence, the kind that invited more trouble; it was a quieter self-assurance that somehow made me okay in the eyes of others… and myself. Now, I gained a new reputation for not being a pushover.

After two years in prison, things were looking up for me, and I was granted parole. I started to prepare to go home.  But even upon release, the voice in my head was still there quietly telling me that I was a loser, that I didn’t have any money, and that I was a disgrace to my community.  This time was different, and his attitude toward me was no longer acceptable.  Instead of listening to him, I started to tell him to shut the hell up.


Once I was released, I immediately started looking for work.  I worked as a part-time dishwasher and cleaner for the first nine months at a restaurant. After nine months, the restaurant shut down, and I started looking for another job.  I was rejected so many times; it would have been easy to lose faith, but I was determined to find a job.  After three months of searching, I got a job at a call center. Working at a call center is not one of the top 10 most desired positions; it is not even in the top 50, but I took it to prove myself.  I worked hard and was promoted. My career was looking good, and everything was starting to fall into place.

Having a moment to reflect on where I had been and where I was going, after fighting back in prison and having mentors helping me, I started taking responsibility and holding myself accountable for my thoughts.  I was almost 40 years old, and I did not have any money or a car.  Some people looked at me as if I had wasted my life. Their eyes told me it was too late, and I would never recover; there was nothing to see here.  I knew it was going to be tough.  I knew the challenge would be mental, so I needed to find more ways to stay motivated because the stakes were too high.  I wanted a complete paradigm shift in my life.

My biggest motivator is my bullies, so I started to imagine my bullies laughing at me, and I used that vision to motivate myself.  I thought, “I am all-in. I will do everything to excel in every aspect of my life”.  If I don’t make it, then my bullies win. I will not cross paths with them and let them see me like this.  I will not waste my life and have the world spit me out.  I will never give up, and I will succeed or die trying.”


My mom had just lent me some money and said, “Why don’t you go back to university to do your master’s.”  My mom always gave me strength, and she could see if I was losing energy and would pick me up and tell me to keep going.  My mentor Roy said his friend Professor Deborah from Carleton University wanted to meet me. We met, and she said, “Why don’t you try taking some sociology courses?”.  I did and got A+ in both. I applied for my master’s in communication at Ottawa U, and I was rejected because my undergrad average was too low.  Undaunted, I applied to Saint Paul University, and they gave me a chance.  I barely made it out of high school and university, but now I was a different student. I have an 85% average doing my master’s in social innovation while working full-time.


My journey has been a long one, but I managed to regain control of myself by understanding the bully in my mind and defeating it.  I did this by creating a simple process of journaling. You can organize your thoughts through a series of journaling exercises by using a paper diary, a Word document on your computer or your phone – whatever works for you.  Self-belief and self-love are critical.  You increase your risk of failure by listening to negative self-talk. So, upon hearing any negativity in your head, you must fight back.  This can be difficult because we lead busy lives, so we are influenced by social media, work, family, and even strangers on top of our own emotions.  This creates chaos, and we need to organize these thoughts to maintain mental balance.

In your journal, make three lists:

  • The first list is of your negative thoughts, so write them down and get to know yourself. What triggers those thoughts? Is it a person, an environment, or a previous experience? Over time you will get better at fighting them back, and they will disappear.  For example, I get thoughts of not being able to write my thesis, so I wrote down that I got good grades, which leads me to move into a resourceful state.  I have the Writing Center, Grammarly, and I can get someone to edit my paper. This negative thought is now invalid, and it does not bother me anymore, but I had to work up to this level of confidence by picking it apart. Now it has no logic or power.
  • The following list is of how your worst fears never came true. How often are we overwhelmed imagining the worst-case scenario that never materializes, and we worry and suffer for no reason? My worst fears were getting beat up in prison, not getting parole, and not getting promoted. Worry was such a waste – it never happened. So now, I never get caught up in worst-case scenarios because they never happen. Even if they did (going to prison is pretty much a worst-case scenario), it worked out because I am now in a better place.
  • Sometimes we are mentally exhausted and are too tired to think. So have a go-to plan. Write down activities that can quickly change your mood in the third list. For me, it is going for a massage, taking a day off from everything, going to the gym, seeing my family, etc.


So how did I end up in the Master of Social innovation program?  My mentor was Roy Van der Mull, an entrepreneurship management teacher inside the prison who had introduced me to one of his friends. His friend then introduced me to another friend who told me about this new program. Without them, I would not be here today. So, thank you to my friend Roy whom I met in the unlikeliest of places, prison. 

I have shared with thirty people in my workshop some experiences that embarrassed me for decades. There were years of despair, depression, anxiety, and sadness. I was filled with suicidal thoughts. Sometimes, I am surprised that I am alive to talk to you right now.  I never imagined I would be able to tell my story to people I know, let alone some of you whom I have not yet met. I spent my entire life trying to solve the mystery of my mind, which caused me to lose control to the point where I ended up in prison. Bullies used to tear me down, but now they build me up; they fuel me; they energize me. I now say to them, “Thank you. I hope you see this. For you, I now have only gratitude”.  I used to talk myself down; now, I talk myself up.  Negative self-talk is no longer acceptable or tolerated. Our biggest bully will always be that inner voice of defeat, “Loser.” We can turn that biggest bully into our most vocal supporter: “Winner” and “Unstoppable.”

The participants in the seminar and the readers of this blog have unknowingly helped me; they have liberated me from adverse life experiences that have held me captive for my whole life. When I was released from prison about four and a half years ago, Roy told me that I should tell people my story because I am capable of helping others. I had no idea at the time why he would say such things to me, and I thought he was crazy. After completing my seminar, I received a lot of feedback about how my story was able to create change in people’s lives. It made the pain worthwhile because I was able to help others. I now realize that my obstacles were a blessing because they propelled me to who I am today. I hope that this blog and my seminar were beneficial to you, and I wish you reach your fullest potential in all aspects of your life.

If you want to follow my journey, you can add me on Instagram, as I will be posting more content starting in September 2022.

Ghassan Zahran

Master’s of social innovation candidate, University of Saint Paul
LinkedIn: Ghassan Zahran
Instagram: Ghassan.talks