Editor’s Note: This story contains descriptions of torture and violence.
The night before he visited San Quentin State Prison, Omar Alshogre (SCS’23) posted a video on Twitter.
“Prison is the place that scares me the most,” he said into the camera. “Still, tomorrow I’m going to prison. Not as a prisoner — as a visitor.”
Alshogre had not been in a prison since he was smuggled out of one in 2015.
Still, he wanted to meet a man on death row for a documentary he was making for a Georgetown class on wrongful convictions. Alshogre could relate.
“I know how it feels to be mistreated. I know how it feels to be away from family. I know how it feels not to see a tree or a bird for years,” Alshogre says. “I feel connected to his case, and I care about him. For me, it was a shock that I am still brave enough to go there.”
Alshogre is a 27-year-old undergraduate student at Georgetown who survived three years of physical and psychological torture and starvation in Syrian prisons. Since his release, he’s become a public speaker and human rights advocate, sounding alarm bells for Syrian prisoners at the U.S. Senate, the United Nations Security Council, the Oslo Freedom Forum, in the Washington Post, on college campuses and universities, at TEDx talks, and with international war crime committees. During his spring break alone, he met with policymakers and leaders in Denmark, Norway and Michigan.
Alshogre enrolled in Georgetown in 2020 for its proximity to policymakers and government leaders involved in Syrian advocacy efforts and to build relationships with professors and students who are “future decision makers,” he says. He also enrolled in Georgetown because he knows the value of learning.
It saved his life.
Imprisoned in Syria
Alshogre was first arrested by Syrian forces in his mountainside village while buying bread for his mother before school. It was April 2011. He was beaten and tortured for two days before being released on the side of the highway, he says.
Over the next year, he was arrested five more times for protesting Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s regime. At the end of 2012, he was arrested for the final time with his three cousins. This time, it wouldn’t be for two days. He was 17.
At first, Alshogre would daydream about his life outside prison — what happened in the final episode of a show he had been watching. How his crush would react to his shaved head. His father’s reproach when he was released.
“I was thinking about all these tiny details for almost three months, and then life changes when you realize you’re never getting out,” he says.
Alshogre was transferred to Branch 215 in Damascus, a prison run by Syria’s military intelligence that he and his cousins called the “branch of slow death.” Eventually, he was detained in Saydnaya Prison, which a former guard called “the end of humanity.” According to Amnesty International, an estimated 13,000 people have been killed at Saydnaya and others have died from torture, malnourishment and lack of medical care between 2011 and 2015, time that overlapped with Alshogre’s imprisonment.
Alshogre’s daily task was to number the dead and carry them out of the cell. He had to number the foreheads of his two cousins, he said. He was told his family back home had been killed. He was threatened with execution and endured broken bones and wounds that wouldn’t heal. He was forced to sleep in a crouched position with his knees pressed against his stomach, a stance his captors used to cripple him, he told CBS News in 2021. He didn’t see natural light for three years.
“This human part of you disappears in order to survive,” he said in the CBS News interview.
Still, in the dark cell, Alshogre found a source of stamina and hope.
“I did not survive because I was physically strong,” he says. “Physically, I was the weakest. Mentally, I wasn’t strong at all. I survived because of relationships. I met the best people in prison who were highly educated. The three years in prison was the best bachelor’s degree I could ever earn.”
“The three years in prison was the best bachelor’s degree I could ever earn.”
-Omar Alshogre (SCS’23)
The University of Whispers
In the cell, prisoners weren’t allowed to talk to one another. So they whispered.
Slowly, Alshogre got to know his fellow prisoners. He realized he shared a cell with a doctor, an engineer, a psychologist, a lawyer.
Gradually, they started sharing tips from their trades: the psychologist offered techniques to withstand torture; the doctor took care of wounds; Alshogre taught the group how to whistle noiselessly to call to birds, earning him the nickname the “bird tamer.”
When Alshogre turned 18, they began to call their group “the university of whispers,” as Alshogre was supposed to be in college. They shared knowledge they could use on a daily basis, Alshogre says, such as ways to distribute 10 potatoes to 100 prisoners as equally as possible.
“It was an amazing way to learn in a place where everything you are learning is necessary and useful,” he says. “And it wasn’t just the technical things but the mentality of learning. Just being able to learn in a difficult situation and keep your mind active every day. That’s when things started to change. Because thinking about this place as prison where people die, it’s depressing. Thinking about it as the university, it’s exciting.”
A Split Second of Freedom
In 2015, Alshogre’s luck changed. In June, he was blindfolded, his hands tied behind his back with metal chains, and told he was about to be executed. Really, his mother had paid an intermediary to smuggle Alshogre out of prison through a mock execution.
Alshogre remembers an officer standing behind him. The sound of guns being loaded. The word “aim,” the pfft of a gunshot. He thought he had been killed. When he opened his eyes, he saw a tree. A bird flying. He was free.
Alshogre was 74 pounds, suffering from tuberculosis. In the months following, he traveled to Sweden to get medical care. He saw his mom for the first time. He learned his father and two brothers had been killed by the Assad regime.
Every morning, he looked at his wounds in the mirror to remind himself that he was really alive, he said.
“Those people with me, they died. They didn’t get out. I survived thanks to them,” he says.
In the years since, Alshogre has made it his mission to tell his story and the story of the Syrian people to as many as he can. And he’s doing it from the Hilltop.
At Georgetown, Alshogre is pursuing his Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies at the School of Continuing Studies (SCS). He takes international relations and business classes at the Walsh School of Foreign Service, and the McDonough School of Business in addition to his classes through SCS. He takes courses in psychology and criminal justice that he applies to his advocacy work for prisoners.
In his Making an Exoneree class at Georgetown, he and his classmates reinvestigated wrongful conviction cases like the case of Tim Young, who Alshogre met at San Quentin and who has been incarcerated for 23 years. They class made documentaries about five incarcerated individuals.
In May, he visited the DC jail and met with incarcerated students from the Georgetown Prison Scholars Program, which brings higher education opportunities to students incarcerated in D.C. and Maryland. He shared his own story of being incarcerated as part of the program’s weekly guest lecture series.
And just like in prison, Alshogre is focused on forging relationships with professors, with fellow students at Georgetown.
“For me, Georgetown is not just a school. It’s a place to connect with people who can be policy makers. I was able to take my first class from aprofessor who was a special envoy in the Obama Administration,” he says. “Georgetown is a special collection of people. I’m building relationships with people connected to what I’m working on.”
Between classes, Alshogre helps assist in legal prosecutions for those who have committed crimes in Syria, serving as a key witness in prosecution efforts. He testified before the United Nations Security Council in November 2021. He serves as the director of detainee affairs for the Syrian Emergency Task Force and was recognized by Carl XVI Gustav, the king of Sweden, for his leadership in human rights advocacy in 2021. He continues to travel and give speeches, most recently at Georgetown’s TEDx talk, Harvard Law School and at the Human Rights Foundation’s Oslo Freedom Forum in Norway.
On June 29, Alshogre will testify before the United Nations Security Council again. This time, he’ll be reinforcing the United Nations council and international community’s responsibility to protect civilians and detainees in Syria, he said.
“I will be bringing the voice of the Syrians from detainees to refugees to IDPs [internally displaced people] to orphans to mothers to fathers who demand justice and more importantly demand an end to the dictatorship in Syria,” he said. “I will shed a light on the forgotten Syrian people and how as the world turned away they continue to be resilient.”
Alshogre says he often feels like he’s living two separate lives: that of a student, who’s competitive about earning As, who dates, who likes to dance. And that of a former political prisoner, who meets with leaders and policymakers to address atrocities in Syria.
“I am supposed to be the human rights advocate who is representing a huge group of innocent people,” he says. “At the same time, I’m a regular student who’s messing things up a lot of time and dating ladies here and there and dancing at parties. There is a huge contrast between the lives I live.”
He’s a normal college student, and yet.
In November 2021, Alshogre sat before the United Nations Security Council. He told them that when he tells his story, he risks his life. The guard who tortured him for one year and nine months called him on the phone recently and threatened him.
“The police said take care,” Alschogre said. “That’s not enough. We need more help. It’s tiresome to see fewer helping us.”
Still, Alshogre continues to tell his story. Still, he holds onto hope.
“The world despite all pain, despite all darkness, has hope,” he told the UN. “I live for hope. I eat on this hope. I see that we have potential. If I survived three years of torture on a daily basis, starvation and psychological torture every day, you can change. You can take action.”
At the National Press Club, Hope for Missing Journalist Austin Tice (SFS’02, L’13)