There is a strange sense of loss that comes with progress. We let go of the past a little as we move forward, and that’s mostly a good thing. Evidenced by the optimism of last month’s first-day-of-school pictures tempered by the feeling that we can’t get those days back, it’s a natural evolution.
When my wife and I dropped our son at college in August, I felt it. We embraced him, wrapping him in good wishes and the optimism of the new experience, then let him go. Returning home, I walked by his empty bedroom and felt that familiar pang of loss and that prayer that he’d be okay.
Of course, I’ll see him when family weekend rolls around.
This is in stark contrast to the August experience of another young man, a Syrian activist named Omar Alshogre who now works for the Arkansas-connected Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF).
In 2011, Omar, filled with the vitality and confidence of youth, joined his friends in protesting the brutal Bassar al-Assad regime near Aleppo, Syria. Arrested by government forces several times during his teens, Omar made it home every time. Then, in 2012, armed militiamen loyal to Assad stormed his village, took Omar and his cousins from their mothers and dropped them in dank prisons. No doubt, Omar thought his release would come quickly. When it didn’t, he began to worry. As did his family.
Taken to Branch 215, a military prison near Damascus, Omar endured daily torture. Imagine the worst man has to offer; that’s what Omar endured, barely surviving each day. He had one job in prison: remove dead prisoners’ bodies and catalog them by marking their foreheads with a number. Brutal.
His cousins died from torture. Omar wept in despair and in want for his family. In August 2014, the same time I was taking my oldest son to college, Omar was transferred to Sednaya Prison, an institution that made Branch 215 look easy. Executions happened for the slightest offense. Yet, there, in that terrible place, he found hope.
Many of the prisoners at Sednaya were doctors and lawyers, teachers and engineers. There, Omar continued his education as he quietly sought instruction from his fellow inmates. They taught him. They inspired him. They gave him hope.
At the same time so many youth here headed back to school, Omar gave his own education a name: The University of Whispers.
Back in the U.S., a Syrian-born young man graduated from the University of Central Arkansas and, moved with sorrow for his former countrymen, became an outspoken advocate for their travails. This young man, Mouaz Moustafa, created the Syrian Emergency Task Force. The organization supports The Wisdom House in Idlib, Syria, which operates as a school for orphans in rebel-held land. SETF also runs the Tomorrow’s Dawn Women’s Center that teaches women to become economically independent, and the Letters of Hope campaign that sends notes of encouragement to Syrian children living under siege.
One of SETF’s greatest contributions occurred when it helped a Syrian military photographer with almost 55,000 images of civilians killed by the Assad regime escape to the U.S. The photographer’s code name is Caesar and his photographs documented war crimes committed by the regime in horrifically graphic detail. SETF facilitated the release of the photos and soon Congress passed the bipartisan Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act sanctioning those who committed war crimes against civilians there. President Trump signed the bill into law in 2019.
Omar Alshogre’s mother fled to Turkey during his incarceration. There, she sold everything she had to raise $20,000 as a bribe to free her son. Cruelly, Omar’s Syrian captors made him believe he was to be executed. Standing before a firing squad, his thoughts flashed to his family and he braced for the impact of bullets. A rifle cracked and he fell. Unbeknown to him at the time, his mother’s resilience had saved him. He was alive. With the help of a bribed guard, his mother had arranged for Omar’s escape to Europe. He weighed 74 pounds when he arrived.
It wasn’t long before he met Mouaz and the work that began in Arkansas. Now, Omar is Director for Detainee Affairs for SETF and is finishing undergraduate work at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., while traveling the world to share his story.
Omar’s journey is riveting. It’s a reminder that while the pains we feel as parents here in Arkansas are real, there is much suffering elsewhere.
The Syrian Emergency Task Force is hosting the Caesar Exhibit–a sample of the photographs and the tragic story of Syrian abuse–at UALR on Sept. 23. The event is open to the public and serves as a vehicle for awareness and education. In an intriguing mixture of higher education–UCA, UALR, The University of Whispers–and a reminder that the dusty byways of the world always find one another, linking in tragedy and triumph, destruction and dignity.
Omar will be there, telling the story of how his mother never gave up hope, how she held him fast through prayer and work. He’ll tell the story of his fellow inmates, of Caesar, of those still there. And he will relate how his ultimate education unfolded.
Every parent–regardless of country or culture–feels the pang of loss when they let go of their children. First days of school are important. Dropping daughters and sons at college or at boot camp is important. Seeing our children into the arms of their chosen vocation is important.
And standing for the children of others is important.
For more information on the event, go to bit.ly/CaesarPanel.
Steve Straessle is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at [email protected] Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle. “The Strenuous Life” appears every other Saturday.