From political prison to public speaking

Omar Alshogre survived beatings, hunger, and thirst in Syrian prisons for three years. He was subjected to torture – both psychological and physical. Although he was convinced that he would not make it, he nonetheless found ways to get through his time in prison. Today he lives in Stockholm, Sweden, and fights for all the Syrian people that are still suffering in Syria.

In the Global Trends report of 2020 from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 1 % of humanity is displaced from their homes. Syria is one of five countries that account for two-thirds of people displaced across borders. More than 5.6 million refugees have fled Syria since 2011, and 13.1 million are still in need in the country. The situation is described as the greatest humanitarian refugee crisis of our time, and behind those large numbers, there are real people and families. UNRIC met Omar who had to flee his country after several years in a political prison.

During UNRIC’s conversation with Omar, today 25 years old, he sits in his living room with a painting behind him with the quote “Everything is the attitude”. During his life, he has survived violence, several years in one of Syria’s worst prisons, the fled from Syria through Europe to Sweden, and through his journey, his mental attitude has saved his life many times.

The escalation to the conflict

Omar Alshogre photo portrait Omar grew up in Baniyas on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. His childhood was similar to many others – he lived with his parents and siblings and did things that kids usually do such as watching children’s programs, doing his homework and being with his friends and family.

Omar took part in the peaceful protests during the Arab Spring in 2011. He began to notice differences in the society when the demonstrations started, with the number of police being more noticeable and the increase in brutality. But as a child, the Arab Spring protests were something that he appreciated and were engaged in.

“I grew up as an ordinary child who sees the police as people who should protect us. When someone commits a crime, the police take the person to prison, I never thought that this could happen to someone that didn’t commit any crime”, describes Omar.

“For me as a child, the demonstrations were a festive happening, we marched and all the children were there, families, we listened to music and danced. It was really fun! It was like Zara Larsson would have a concert in Stockholm and everyone would go there and dance”, he continues.

It was during one of the demonstrations that Omar realized that the police’s brutality was becoming more and more common.

“The police asked how many soldiers I have murdered, and when I heard it the first time I started laughing. I was 15 years old; my mother would not even let me cut potatoes at home because she was afraid that I would cut myself with the knife. They knew I had not done anything; I was a child.”

Omar describes the felt and experienced confusion about the police’s actions since he had previously been so convinced that the police were good people who were on his side and only arrested people who had committed crimes.

“When the conflict escalated the only thing I could think about was that I could not go to school. Without my studies I would fall behind and the girl that I was in love with would see that I was failing in school; that was my main concern”, says Omar and smiles. At that time he did not know how long the conflict would last and how much pain and misery he would have to go through.

Found ways to survive longer

Omar Alshogre photo portrait 2 When Omar was put in prison 2012, he spent his time there for several months without hope, he did not have much left to live for and he saw death as a relief. But one day he decided to do something to make the days go by and to be occupied with during the days.

“We had so little space in prison, we could barely move. I started stretching up my arms for the first time. I knew I was going to die, but it was about dying while I was doing something and then the stretching became something to hold on to. Eventually, I started to feel hope and I accepted my days there.”

University of Whispers

Finding ways to relate to the days in prison mentally was also something that brought with it new perspectives and ways of thinking for Omar. As a result, he also began to take advantage of the people he was in prison with and see the opportunity to learn from others.

“When I came back from the torture in prison, it was a fellow prisoner doctor who told me how I should take care of my wounds. The person on the left was an engineer and talked about how to rebuild the prison. To the right was a person who was a lawyer and talked about how we can build a dictator-free system. Behind me was a psychologist who told me about how to cope mentally during difficult challenges. All the people around me were well educated. I never thought about that before, so I decided to start learning things from them.”

They started learning from each other and came up with the name “The University of Whispers”.

“We did not talk to each other in prison, we only whispered because if the guard heard us talking, we would get more torture. So we started calling it the University of Whispers. We wanted to have a name that would feel meaningful and serious to us”, describes Omar. “It was about finding something that made it more or less meaningful to make it through the torture and days in prison. It took a long time to be able to start thinking like that, but it worked in the end.”

“Knowledge does not come from walls, but from the peoples around you. It comes from the way you communicate with people. The University of Whispers made us find strategies for how we could survive longer”, Omar continues. “That’s what life is all about, to find meaning and purpose and the right mindset to what happens around you, even if it is challenging.”

The long way to Sweden

Omar was released from prison when his mother paid 20,000 USD to a corrupt police officer that staged a mock execution. When he came out of prison, he was 20 years old, weighed only 34 kg and infected by tuberculosis.

Since Omar needed care for his critical health condition, he and his little brother Ali, fled to Europe. They crossed the Mediterranean from Turkey in a small boat that almost sank before the arrival in Greece. From Greece, they went through Europe and ended up in Malmö, Sweden. In Sweden, Omar finally got the health care that he needed and recovered. He and his little brother were two of the almost 163,000 refugees who came to Sweden in 2015. He was soon established in Sweden after re-gaining his health and got his first job serving ice cream.

Today, Omar works as a public speaker to raise awareness about Syrian prisoners and about his time in prison. He speaks both English and Swedish fluently and has held speeches for places such as White House, multiple members of the Congress in the US, New York Times and Brown University. He also got rewarded from the Swedish king for his compassion, courage, and good values. His goal now is to fight to hold the Syrian regime accountable for the actions. The mentality he trained in prison is something that he will bring with him his whole life.

“That is why I live such a happy life today.”

To help the people in need in Syria and to solve the conflict, Omar thinks that international organizations should have more humanitarian focus than focus on politics.

“It is time to include more humanity into leadership, it’s important that it’s humanity, and not politics, that govern conflicts. Everything today has been transformed into politics, we need to change that and base actions on people’s need and not the interests of different countries”, he states.

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