WASHINGTON — A Syrian refugee who survived being abducted and beaten by both the Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army when he was just 15, is now an undergrad at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and is sharing his experiences living as a teenager during the Syrian civil war.
Growing up in the vicinity of what is now one of Syria's most war-ravaged cities in rural Aleppo, 21-year-old Saria Samakie recalled on Wednesday the times in which he was abducted by both the Syrian government and the rebel faction looking to take down the regime simply because each side thought he or his family was working for the other.
During an event hosted by the Brookings Institution think tank, Samakie explained that he never thought he would see a revolution like the ones that occurred in Tunisia and Egypt occur in his own country. But by 2011, the Syrian government was engulfed in a full-fledged civil war.
Although Samaki was enrolled in public school, his school was eventually turned into a military base when he was 15, and his father saw that as the "perfect opportunity" to pull him out of school so that he could work on the family farm and help with their agriculture business.
After having been pulled out of school, Samakie said that he began seeing demonstrations and developing ideas that he wanted to express. He said that he turned to photography as an outlet, noting that he didn't have equipment more extravagant than his cellphone camera. Samakie added that he would often post political messages on Facebook, but would never directly indicate that he was against President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
One Friday in 2012, Samaki said that he and his 20-year-old cousin were near a mosque in the historic district of Aleppo taking pictures of the area when they were arrested by mercenaries working for the regime.
The boys were accused of working for banned foreign news organizations and were taken to a military intelligence office in Aleppo.
"We happened to be the lucky ones who were the first ones to arrive that day and they were ready for us. They threw us on the floor and started beating us immediately," Samakie recounted. "Regardless of our age, they started beating us immediately. They had us stand against the wall. We gave them our belongings, down to our shoelaces."
"I remember this guy going into our room with a water pipe. After the guy in the room told him that we were working for foreign news agencies, he takes out his pipe and starts beating us on the back and and on the head right away. At the time, I knew it was life or death," Samakie continued. "I extended my hand to my cousin standing to my left and I said, 'It was great meeting you. We are probably going to die soon or never be let out of this place.'"
Samakie told the audience that he said such grim words because he had known that people captured by the regime who "did not return."
"To give you some context in terms of intelligence in Syria: If you are in, you are dead. If you get out of there, you are reborn," Samakie explained. "So going in, I did not know if we were walking out of this at all."
Samakie recalled being taken upstairs and being subjected to further torment.
He said that he was taken to a room and told to stand on a specific tile and was told that if he moved from the tile or sat down that he would be killed.
"The room was half-grey, half-white. They had a picture frame of the president on the wall. The [interrogator] was sitting there behind the table and he lights a cigarette and I am there shivering and hearing people being tortured downstairs," Samakie described. "He lights on a cigarette and he said to me, 'Tell me everything or I will put you in a place where even God won't know where you are.' To me, it hit me that I either can be weak in front of him and he can take advantage of that weakness, or I show him that I am actually strong."
"I looked at him and said, 'Do you want me to tell you the truth or to tell you something that will make you happy? These two things are completely different,'" Samakie recalled. "The guy goes like, 'Tell me everything.'"
The interrogator's question boiled down to whether or not Samakie was against the regime and even printed out Samakie's entire Facebook wall. One post the interrogator took into question was one in which he stated, "Whoever kills his people is a traitor." However, Samakie argued that he never said he was against Assad, just against people who kill their own people.
Luckily for Samakie and his cousin, the intelligence officers discovered the fact that he was born in Canada and that his cousin had British nationality. They were both released.
"I went out and the reason why I went out was because of being born in Canada, having that privilege," Samakie said. "I had the privilege of being born in Canada and walking out of Syrian intelligence. But what about the thousands of others who were detained and are still detained in Syrian intelligence right now who don't have foreign nationalities that can save them?'"
It was only about a month later before Samakie would find himself detained again, this time by militants affiliated with the FSA, a loose faction of militant opposition groups.
Samakie said that he and his father were on the family farm outside of Aleppo when an armed car drove onto their property.
The militants initially asked for Samakie's dad to hand over their car. But after Samakie's dad refused, they took both Samakie and the car. Samakie recalled his dad, who was in his 70s at the time, begging for the militants to take him rather than his son.
Samakie said that he was taken to a small village near Aleppo. He was placed in a room and remembers a tall, bearded militant walking in the room and sitting down next to him. The militant tells him that they kidnapped him and were asking his family for $2 million in ransom.
Additionally, the militant accused his father of working for the Syrian government.
"They were like, '$2 million or your are going back home in a plastic bag,'" Samakie recalled.
Samakie said that he initially joked about the ransom amount, saying that the militants should just kill him right away because there was no way his family could afford that amount.
"They guy standing on guard at the door comes in afterwards and is like, 'Are you crazy Saria?' I am like, 'No, not really. Why?'" Samakie asked. "He said, 'That guy you just sat with beheaded nine people and you are going to be No. 10. You were there laughing.'"
Samakie got to really know the captors looking after him during the first few days of his 10-day abduction.
Samakie said that one of the militants was a defected Syrian soldier who quit the military because he was ordered to kill innocent civilians. Another militant, Samakie said, was a former university student who saw one of his friends die in his arms after being shot during a peaceful government protest.
"Please understand that while we are here and part of the Free Syrian Army, we are still soldiers being given pay, given orders," Samakie remembers being told by one of the militants. "That was eye opening. Whether the regime talks about the Free Syrian Army or whether the Free Syrian Army talks about the regime, at the end of the day, they are people given orders. It was important for me to see the humanity of each people. When asked them what they wanted. They said they wanted for this to end, to go back, get a house, get married, have children."
"They joked that my dad was going to give them so much money that they were going to take part of that money to get married," Samakie said. "I was like, 'Please invite me to that wedding when you get married.'"
Although he made friends with some of his FSA captors, Samakie didn't make friends with everyone.
"Another time they brought down and old guy who sat down and cherry picked verses from the Quran. He sits in front of me. I said, 'I am going to respect you because you are an old man but whatever you say, the verses you are reciting are completely out of context and completely wrong,'" Samakie told him.
"Saying that to an old guy who is completely an extremist, he stand up and says, 'Chop his right arm and his left leg. I want them in plastic bags and we are going to send them to his family.'"
Fortunately, Samakie was spared his arm and his leg and his family eventually paid $20,000 for his ransom.
"When my brother comes to the pickup point and I go to see him and give him a hug, I turned around and there are these 20 guys standing saluting me. I was like, 'What is happening?'" Samakie recalled asking. "They were like, 'You have proven to be stronger and more courageous than we could ever be.' They offered me a job to work with [FSA]. They said, 'You never have to go into battle, we can order your office online, we can get you are car.'"
Samakie turned down the job offer and returned home. After his father lost his properties and businesses, Samakie said that he was taught how to make yogurt and sell it as a job. However, Samakie had his heart set on getting an education.
"I was making around 150-200 buckets a day — it was a profession. I went on with it but I realized I didn't want to spend the rest of my life making yogurts," Samakie explained. "I want to participate in the building of my country for the future."
In 2013, Samakie fled to Jordan through Syria's unofficial border with Turkey. After getting a high school education at the private King's Academy in Madaba, Samakie helped launch an NGO devoted to providing educational opportunities to Syrian refugees in Jordan.
"Not only have I seen the impact on education for myself, I have seen the impact of education on the students who work with my NGO," Samakie said. "Really, going to Kings changed my mind in terms of how we think of education. I didn't want to go and receive an education where I get a degree and just put it my wall. ... To me, I wanted to see from different perspectives. I wanted to broaden my horizon."