Man’s inspiring journey from prison to leader of the Muslim community

Bariz Shah, a prominent Muslim community leader, believes deeply in the power of people to rehabilitate themselves. He went there himself.

Shah came to public prominence as the leader of the Canterbury Muslim Student Association following the March 15, 2019 terror attack, having first arrived in New Zealand from Afghanistan as he was a child.

After the attacks, he raised $20,000 and traveled to Afghanistan to start 51 micro-businesses in honor of those who died. He received the Christchurch Civic Award for his efforts.

But these good works came after Bariz Shah crashed to his lowest point and had to face the consequences of his actions.

At the age of 18, Shah was jailed for aggravated robbery, after he and a group of friends robbed a 16-year-old. Shah was not violent, but the victim was punched once by one of the other teenagers. The judge noted Shah’s remorse but deemed the crime serious enough to warrant a prison sentence.

“Looking back, I’m really glad I went to jail,” Shah said. His adolescence had been spent attacking all authority, while suffering racist abuse himself. But upon going to jail, Shah said, “I stopped seeing myself as a victim.”

“I already knew my life was off track, I knew that from the start,” Shah said. “I hadn’t developed to the point where I could be comfortable with who I was in New Zealand.”

In prison, he practiced and read voraciously. And he used his time in prison to work on himself, “much like the hyperbolic time chamber Vegeta uses in Dragon Ball Z,” he jokes.

Now Shah wants the same opportunities available to others who have turned their lives around after being imprisoned.

“Give them hope,” Shah said, of helping prisoners rehabilitate. “Before you went to jail, one of the officers actually told me…that if in seven years you prove yourself, your record can be expunged.”

But while that gave Shah hope upon his release, it’s not really true. New Zealand has a “clean slate” law for people whose crimes did not result in a prison sentence, but it does not apply to those who have been incarcerated. “I feel like it sets people up for failure,” Shah said.

Shah is calling for this law to be changed, so that people in prison can anticipate when their convictions will be expunged, provided they do not commit any crime after their release.

He proposes a system where if a person has been incarcerated for certain crimes, they should be able to go to a committee which would consider the applications. “I feel like as a progressive nation we have to look at this issue,” he said.

Beliefs will always be part of who Bariz Shah was and how far he has come since. After graduating as an engineer, Shah traveled to Spring Hill Jail, taking a photo to remember the trip.

“I can sit here and say I’m proud of the person I’ve become, the work I’ve done for others. Not to draw praise from it, but because it makes me better. So yes, I’m proud.

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