My journey from Syria’s notorious Branch 215 prison to the US’s Georgetown University.
Dictatorship is sustained by fear. To establish and maintain its power, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad runs a chain of political prisons to brutalise those who demand democracy.
Using starvation, abuse and psychological torture, it seeks to break down not only the prisoners but their families and others who would oppose it.
I grew up near Baniyas, a town in the Tartous Governorate in northern Syria, in a bustling family of siblings, uncles, aunts, and many cousins. When my mother would call my big brother, Mohammed, in for dinner, another five cousins with the same name would appear, and of course, gather around the table as well.
Like most of my siblings, I did not have a warm relationship with my father. He had been a military officer, retiring shortly before the upheaval began in Syria in early 2011. We questioned everything he did, but our thoughts stayed in our heads because he was not the sort of father you could talk to and he was angry a lot of the time.
My father relied on his military “toughness” to make sure we excelled at school. It was his dream that we would be good students.
If I needed money, I would go to my mother so that she would ask my father on my behalf. I never felt confident enough to ask him directly.
But one day – a few months before the beginning of the Arab Spring – everything changed. Almost overnight, my father changed his behaviour towards us, making an effort to be a father and a friend instead of just an officer.
Later, during my detention, I wondered if somehow he had known that we would become separated by war, imprisonment and, ultimately, death.
A kind of fear I had never felt before
When I was 15 years old, the Arab Spring shook dictatorships around the Middle East.
I hurried out to join the crowds on the streets of Baniyas to show my father that I was not a child any more, but a young man daring to stand beside strong leaders demanding freedom. I was eager for change – change in the way my father looked at me.
That was the first time I was thrown into a political prison. I was 15 years old and the Syrian regime viewed me as a threat.
I was held at a prison in Tartous, where I was tortured for a few days before my mother gathered the women in our area to blockade the main highway and put pressure on the regime to release me.
Those few days broke me physically and made me taste a kind of fear I had never felt before. I was tortured and had my fingernails pulled out. I was surrounded by dead bodies. I could not see the guards who tortured me because I was blindfolded. I imagined them in my head; to my 15-year-old self, they looked like zombies.
I was afraid I would not survive to see my mother and siblings again. I was afraid I would die before proving my strength to my father. I was even afraid to be released and return to school where everybody would be scared to look at my hands.
Then, in my last year of high school, when I was 17 years old, I was arrested again, along with three of my cousins – Bashir, 22, Rashad, 20, and Nour, 17. We were taken from our home and transferred between eight different political prisons so that no one would know where we were.
In August 2014, we were moved to what we called the “slaughterhouse” – Saydnaya prison, which brought a new level of pain and fear.
Our nails were pulled out; we were hung from the ceilings, electrocuted and mutilated. But the worst part was that we were forced to turn on each other. We had done nothing wrong so had nothing to inform on each other about. So, instead, they made us beat each other with belts and burn each other’s bodies with cigarettes.
Later, at Branch 215, a political prison in Damascus which we call the “branch of slow death”, Rashad died after months of torture on March 15, 2013. Bashir died a year later. I heard nothing about Nour, and I counted her dead too. I found myself alone in a place full of monsters, being tortured and waiting to die.
Gasping for air and sunlight
I grew up in prison. I witnessed the torture, starvation and dehumanisation that took place there. They are designed to implant fear and break people’s spirits so that, even once released, they will continue to suffer physically and mentally. Nightmares still haunt former detainees, including me. The psychological trauma that follows such systematic torture leaves a person isolated from society if they do not receive treatment.
Inside the prison, people sit in overcrowded cells, gasping for air and sunlight. The smell of death fills every corner and the screams of men, women and children echo in the hallways. Children as young as three were put in prison as punishment for their parents taking part in the peaceful protests in 2011.
You can never escape from it. The screams of my cousins, Bashir and Rashad, who both died under torture in front of my eyes, still ring in my ears today.
Many of the detainees in Syrian political prisons have been forcibly removed – or “disappeared” – from their families. Forced disappearance is used as a way to punish not only the political prisoners but their families as well, leaving them not knowing what has become of their loved ones.
In al-Assad’s Syria, families of detainees are refused any information about their whereabouts and wellbeing. It leads to years of uncertainty and pain.
At one point, the Syrian intelligence service told my mother I had died in prison. She grieved. My family held my funeral, without my body.
This has become the reality for so many in Syria. And it is part of the reason why so many people are fleeing for neighbouring countries and beyond. More than 11 million Syrians have fled their homes since the start of the crisis.
The University of Whispers
During my years as a political prisoner, my only way of communicating with those around me was by whispering. We could not talk, so we whispered. Here I was, 18 years old, sitting in Branch 215, surrounded by highly-educated prisoners.
A doctor whispered us through how to protect ourselves during torture; how to breathe when they beat us. The psychologist in my cell shared techniques on how to keep our spirits up. The lawyers would think creatively about building a dictator-free prison, so no one prisoner took more power and food than the others.
Whispering allowed us, the political prisoners, to build a university inside one of the filthiest places in Syria. A university we called, The University of Whispers.
They burned everything down
In May 2013, as I was inhaling the smell of death crawling across the filthy walls of that prison, government forces attacked my village. They wanted to destroy everything and everyone. They killed my father and two of my brothers and set our house on fire with the rest of my family inside.
My mother and some of my siblings managed to escape, fleeing with other surviving neighbours to Turkey.
Once there, my mother managed to scrape together $20,000 that she used to buy my freedom and get me out of Syria. Under the guise of a mock execution, I was smuggled out of prison in June 2015.
I was a walking skeleton, weighing only 34 kilogrammes (75 pounds). I did not recognise myself in the mirror. I saw a monster. After years of only being able to whisper, I did not even recognise my own voice. When I was reunited with my mother in Turkey, we did not recognise each other – she was shocked to see me so weak and skinny.
My mother decided I had to leave Turkey for treatment. My little brother, Ali, who was only 11 at the time, was chosen to accompany me while the rest of our family remained in Turkey. Together we made our way by rubber boat from Izmir to Greece and then on through Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Germany, Denmark and, finally, after a month of travel, ending up in Sweden, where I was immediately hospitalised for tuberculosis and malnourishment. We sought asylum and were later moved to Stockholm, where we stayed with a Swedish foster family we had met at the hospital.
My trauma became my driving force
Three years after my release from prison, I was living a different life in Sweden. Ali went back to school and I worked in management consultancy at the Stockholm office of The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), where I was first invited to speak to the staff about my experience and about leadership in crisis, then offered a job there. But I never stopped thinking about the people back home and my friends who were still in prison.
I had been able to break the chains that locked me and I knew I had an obligation to use my voice to echo the voices of those who could still only whisper.
I was lucky to find my own way of treating my trauma through public speaking. I shared my story on stage and with everyone I met; I used my trauma as a driving force.
I began giving talks in Sweden with the help of my Swedish foster brother, William Von Heland, and my friend, Anton Danielsson. Later, I went on to share my story around Europe and in the United States where I was helped by The Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF), a US-based non-profit organisation.
While there I was working at BCG, which helped me to understand that the solution for war is not only a political one but an economic one as well. The corruption that sparked the movement for revolution in Syria was based on economic and fundamental human rights injustices.
I continue to hold talks at private companies, schools and municipalities around the world. I see sharing my story as my mission to bear witness not only to the atrocities of the Syrian war but also to the optimism and will for life that has by necessity stemmed from it.
Now, aged 25, I wanted to fulfil my father’s dream for me to get a great education from a respected school. So I applied, and on October 24 this year, I received an email from Georgetown University granting me admission.
Like most Syrian refugees, I have overcome unspeakable oppression and now just want to make the world a better place – and I want to start with learning.
As Nelson Mandela said: “There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.” I believe I have already passed through the valley of the shadow of death, and by holding the compass of education, I will have the map and the strength to reach the mountaintop of my aspirations.
Although my father cannot be here to see me fulfil his dream, at least I am here to do it.