Could you forgive the person who'd killed your child, disfigured you, or utterly ruined your life? These incredible people did...
1. A slap for her son’s killer – then forgiveness
When her 18-year-old son Abdollah was stabbed to death in a street fight back in 2007, doting mum Samereh Alinejad was devastated. She’d already lost her youngest son in a road accident when he was just 11 years old. Now losing Abdollah was too much to bear.
Samereh wanted vengeance, and under Iran’s Sharia Law, that’s exactly what she was entitled to.
So when 19-year-old Bilal Gheisari was found guilty of the killing, the court sentenced him to death by public hanging. With a twist.
Under Sharia Law, relatives of the deceased are entitled to kick away the chair on which the prisoner who is about to hang is standing. The idea being both justice and vengeance is served.
Samereh vowed to avenge her son’s death by being the person to kick that chair away.
Only, 10 days before Bilal was due to hang, Samereh had a worrying dream. ‘I saw my son in a dream asking me not to take revenge,’ Samereh told the press at the time. ‘But I couldn’t convince myself to forgive.’
Two days before the planned execution, Abdollah came to his mother in another dream. ‘This time he refused to speak to me,’ Samereh said.
But she was determined to see Bilal die. So on April 15 2014 she went to the public execution. A blindfolded and bound Bilal was led sobbing to the gallows, where he was made to stand on a chair as the hangman’s noose was placed round his neck.
Samereh was called forward to kick his chair away, sending Bilal to his death. But instead something remarkable happened. To everyone’s amazement, Samereh furiously slapped her son’s killer round the face.
‘Rage vanished within my heart. I felt as if the blood in my veins began to flow again,’ Samereh said. ‘I burst into tears and called my husband and asked him to come and remove the noose.’
In an even more extraordinary turn of events, Bilal’s mother and Samereh ended up hugging and sobbing.
Bilal’s sentence was commuted to 12 years in jail, and Semereh has now found peace.
‘Losing a child is like losing a part of your body,’ she said. ‘But now I feel very calm. I feel that vengeance has left my heart.’
2. A hug for the drunk driver who killed her daughter
On May 11 2002, 20-year-old Meagan Napier and her friend Lisa Dickson, also 20, were driving home from the beach when the jeep driven by drunk driver Eric Smallridge, then 25, struck Lisa’s Mazda, sending it ploughing into a tree. Both girls died instantly, leaving their families devastated.
‘The wailing and crying that comes from the depth of your soul,’ Meagan’s mum Renee told the press at the time. ‘The pain is so horrible.’
Smallridge was found guilty of DUI (driving under the influence) manslaughter and sentenced to 22 years in jail. Justice, of sorts.
But though Smallridge hadn’t shown any remorse during his trial, by the time he’d been sentenced he’d written letters to both Lisa and Meagan’s families expressing his sorrow and regret.
At first the families were cynical, wondering if it was a ploy to get a lighter sentence. But seeing how distraught Smallridge was at his sentencing changed everything for Renee Napier.
‘At the sentencing I felt his pain for the first time,’ Renee told the press. ‘He is a young man in agony. It was healing for me, and hopefully for him, to tell him face to face I forgive him.’
But not only did Renee forgive Smallridge, the two started writing to each other, becoming friendly. And in 2006 Renee actually campaigned to have Smallridge’s sentence cut in half.
Finally in November 2012, Eric Smallridge was released from prison, and since gaining his freedom, he and Renee have toured schools and colleges to talk about the dangers of drink driving, and they’ve also, incredibly, become firm friends.
3. He blew up her father – now they’re friends
It made headline news across the world when the IRA blew up Brighton’s Grand Hotel in October 1984. Their target was the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet, who were staying at the hotel for the Conservative Party conference. While Mrs Thatcher escaped injury, five people were killed.
One of those people was Sir Anthony Berry. The Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate, he was also a Whip in Margaret Thatcher’s government and more importantly, aged 59, he was a husband and dad to six children.
One of those children was Jo Berry. She was 27 at the time her father died.
‘It was a massive shock,’ she told the press later. ‘I didn’t just lose my father in that bomb – someone I had become really close to – I lost a part of me.’
In September 1986 the man who’d planted the bomb, IRA member Patrick Magee, received eight life sentences.
But though justice had been served, the story was not over for Jo Berry. With each IRA story in the papers, Jo began to feel part of something much bigger than her own grief. She felt the pain and violence of each killing.
So in 1999 when Magee was released early from prison under the Good Friday Agreement, Jo knew what she had to do. She wanted to meet Magee face to face.
‘My intention was to meet once and hear his story so that I could experience him as a human being rather than a faceless enemy,’ Jo has since told the press. But that isn’t quite what happened when they finally met in Dublin in November 2000.
Jo’s courage and empathy somehow got through to Magee, enabling him to see her – and her father – as fellow human beings.
In the 15 years since that first meeting, Jo and Patrick Magee have not only met countless more times, they’ve also become friends and crusaders for peace – launching Building Bridges for Peace, an organisation promoting peace and conflict resolution throughout the world.
As Jo says: ‘I am learning to give up blame and choose empathy.’
4. Tragically disfigured but still beautiful inside
On the night of September 19 1999, Jacqueline Saburido went to a birthday party near Austin, Texas. Afterwards, she accepted a lift home with some friends. Also driving home from a different party was Reginald Stephey, 18. Only he’d been drinking beer.
Tragically his car veered head on into the one carrying Jacqueline and her friends. Two girls in the car were killed instantly. However, Jacqueline was trapped in the car and suffered burns to more than 60 per cent of her body.
Stephey was convicted of two counts of intoxication manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison. But with her hands and face completely burned away, Jacqueline was handed a life sentence.
Incredibly, at a meeting during his trial, Saburido asked to meet with Stephey where she told him – I forgive you.
When she spoke to Oprah Winfrey in 2003 she explained: ‘I think he’s not a criminal. He’s a responsible person that took a bad decision at a bad time.’
In the years since the accident Jacqueline has had over 100 operations and admits she suffers from depression. Stephey, who was released from prison in 2008, also claims to be haunted by what he did.
5. Holocaust survivor ‘adopts’ grandson of infamous Nazi
At the age of 10, the idyllic childhood Eva Mozes Kor and her twin sister Miriam had shared in Romania came to a horrific end, as they were shipped to the infamous Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz along with the rest of their Jewish family.
They never saw their family again, and because they were twins, Eva and Miriam were forced to undergo horrific medical experiments by Dr Josef Mengele – the Nazi’s ‘Angel of Death’.
Incredibly, despite being close to death many times, both Eva and Miriam survived the war, finally being liberated from Auschwitz in January 1945.
Eva returned to live with an aunt in Romania, before moving to the USA many years later where, in 1984, she founded the organisation CANDLES – Children of Auschwitz Nazi Deadly Lab Experiments Survivors. Then in 1995, while visiting Auschwitz for the 50th anniversary of its liberation, Eva caused controversy by publically claiming she ‘forgave’ the Nazis.
Eva told the press, ‘When I forgave Mengele, and then all the Nazis, and then anyone who had ever hurt me, I felt a tremendous burden lifted from my shoulders. I realised that although I was liberated in 1945, I was not free until I forgave in 1995.’
And if that’s not awe-inspiring enough, Eva has now unofficially ‘adopted’ the grandson of high-ranking Nazi Rudolf Hoess – the man who was in charge of Auschwitz.
In 2014 Eva received an email from Rainer Hoess, 49, who explained he’d only discovered his grandfather (who’d been hanged for his crimes 20 years before Rainer was born) was one of history’s worse mass killers when he was 12. He’d subsequently disowned his family, and longed to meet Eva in person and to give her a hug. He also claimed he’d happily spit on his dead grandfather’s grave if he only knew where it was.
Wary, Eva assumed the email was a hoax. But a second email came asking if Eva would become his adoptive grandmother. Finally Eva agreed to meet Rainer and an incredible friendship was forged – and yes, she agreed to ‘adopt’ him.
‘I admire and love him,’ Eva told the press.
In an attempt to somehow make amends for the sins of his grandfather, Rainer has had a star of David tattooed on his chest in solidarity with the Jewish people who lost their lives, and he now lectures schoolchildren about the horror of the Nazi era and anti-Semitism.
As for Eva, though now aged 81, she still remains an integral part of the CANDLES organisation, preaching the power of love and forgiveness.