Saria Samakie, a 21-year-old Syrian refugee who is a freshman at Georgetown University, visited Loomis on January 18 and 19 to share his story. As a teenager living in Aleppo at the start of the Syrian civil war, Mr. Samakie was held captive first by government forces and later by rebel forces and eventually fled to Jordan from his war-torn homeland.
At a Thursday evening talk with students in the Global & Environmental Studies Program, Mr. Samakie related his harrowing experiences in vivid detail interspersed with humor. On Friday, he met with students in Arabic language classes and the environmental science course Human Populations and Impact. Mr. Samakie's story ties in with this year's school theme of Globalization.
Born in Canada to Syrian parents, Mr. Samakie relocated to Aleppo with his family as a preschooler and, at 15, was a budding amateur photographer with a growing interest in the political events of the time. That same year, Mr. Samakie was detained by Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces and accused of being a member of the foreign media and supporting terrorism.
"Tell me what you know," his Syrian military intelligence captor demanded, "or I will put you in a place where even God won't know where you are," Mr. Samakie told the students on Thursday evening.
Unwilling to show weakness, Mr. Samakie said he responded, "Would you like me to tell the truth or tell you something that would make you happy? Because these two things are different."
One month after being released by government forces, Mr. Samakie was kidnapped by an anti-government faction that contended that he and his family were government sympathizers. The rebels threatened Mr. Samakie and his family with violence, including death and dismemberment. His captors also engaged in psychological tactics to try to coerce him into admitting to their fabricated charges or indicting family members.
Although he was afraid throughout these experiences and cried alone in the dark every night, Mr. Samakie said he did his best not to show weakness to his captors, at one point even insisting they "choose any finger" when they threatened to cut off one of his digits. Mr. Samakie suggested that in the end he wore down his kidnappers with his fortitude, faith, and a commitment to telling only the truth. He said he thinks the would-be torturers came to view him as being stronger than themselves. They invited him to join their cause after setting him free.
After rejoining his family and working for a time in a yogurt-making business, Mr. Samakie fled to Amman, Jordan where he could pursue an education. He was eventually accepted to King's Academy in Jordan, a secondary school modeled after American-style independent schools, and set up a Go Fund Me site to pay for his tuition. While at King's Academy, he and two classmates started a community mobile classroom project called "Ideas On The Go" to promote education and learning in underserved communities in Jordan.
Since coming to the United States to attend Georgetown, Mr. Samakie has spoken to many young people at schools and universities, in part to counter narratives projected onto refugees in public discourse. He said he tells his story as a way to "speak for those who cannot speak for themselves."
At the end of his Thursday presentation, he offered two final thoughts:When confronting obstacles, "No one can stop us unless we decide to stop ourselves," he said. And, he added, "People will never remember you for what you did [for] yourself. They will always remember you for what you did [for] others."
Mr. Samakie's visit to campus was organized by the Alvord Center for Global & Environmental Studies and the Norton Family Center for the Common Good.