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Freed Minnesota man tells students at alma mater that knowledge is power

WOODBURY — While a student at Woodbury High School, Shezanne “Shez” Cassim was bright but considered himself somewhat of a slacker. 

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However, when the 29-year-old Woodbury resident found himself locked in a maximum security prison in the United Arab Emirates for nine months, he realized just how valuable learning and knowledge were.

“We smuggled in a math textbook,” he said. “I was so hungry for information that I wanted to do math.

“My brain was just deteriorating.”

Cassim shared his story last week with WHS students during a presentation at the school.

WHS political science teacher Theresa Von Ruden arranged for Cassim’s visit because she thought his messages would connect with students.

“It’s a combination of important material or subjects that they need to address at this age,” she said. “They need to learn about the consequences of social media, and be in tune with international politics.

“We’re really excited to have him back at Woodbury High School.”

‘Scary experience’

Cassim, a 2002 WHS graduate, was living in the United Arab Emirates, where he was working as a business consultant in the aviation division of PricewaterhouseCooper, when he and some friends decided to make a parody video about one of the suburban areas of Dubai.

“As the city was growing, it was kind of losing its identity,” he said. “The video was never meant for a global audience.”

The 19-minute YouTube mockumentary, “Ultimate Combat System: Deadly Satwa Gs,” begins with a scene from a makeshift martial arts school and continues with so-called fighters patrolling the city’s streets trying to help women understand how dangerous the area can be with “big gangsters” hanging around.

“We throw flip-flops at a wall,” Cassim said. “I don’t know how dangerous flip-flops can be.”

The video includes a disclaimer explaining its content is fictional and doesn’t truly represent the district of Al Satwa in Dubai.

Shortly after the video went live, it became a viral sensation locally.

Cassim was arrested in April 2013 for allegedly violating UAE’s cyber-crimes laws and threatening national security.

“Can you imagine me being a threat to anyone?” Cassim said. “If I got in a fight with a bunch of kittens, the kittens would win.”

Cassim spent roughly eight months in jail before he was formally charged and sentenced to one year in prison in December. Cassim returned to the United States in January after a diplomatic intervention.

“It was an imaginary reaction to a political situation that was there,” he said. “It was a violation of basic human rights.”

A renewed appreciation

After being released from prison, Cassim said he has been watching a lot of Netflix and has also started writing a book.

“My experience gave me a lot of appreciation for what I had,” he said. “Now I can see how much I can do.

“Your opinion can make a difference,” he continued. “You can put focus on an issue with something as little as your opinion.”

Cassim also advised students to take full advantage of school, knowledge and the opportunities they provide.

“It’s not about whether you are going to use calculus or poetry in the real world,” he said. “These classes teach you how to think. There’s so much power and opportunity that you have, and I hope you take advantage of it and don’t squander your opportunities like I did.”

Cassim also said he hopes his experience doesn’t deter anyone from traveling abroad.

“World experiences will make you more competitive,” he said. “But, my advice is, don’t go to jail. It’s not as much fun as it looks in ‘The Shawshank Redemption.’”

Amber Kispert-Smith

Amber Kispert-Smith has been the schools and Afton reporter at the Woodbury Bulletin since 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. She previously worked as a reporter for Press Publications in White Bear Lake.

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