Syrian Refugee Tells Tale of Captivity, Courage

Saria Samakie survived three years of Syria's brutal civil war and three kidnappings before escaping as a refugee to neighboring Jordan. 

February 14, 2017
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Saria Samakie

The torture tools arrived with breakfast. Saria Samakie’s captivity had taken another terrifying turn.

Just 15 years old and already the victim of his second abduction amid Syria’s brutal civil war, Saria sat in a cell as his captors argued over whether to feed him or beat him.

“The torture tools were sent away, and breakfast ended up on the floor,” he recalled matter-of-factly.

That harrowing recollection was one of many Saria shared with a rapt assembly Friday recounting his life and remarkable courage in Aleppo, one of the most devastated cities in the war-torn country. Saria, now 20, fled Syria for neighboring Jordan three years ago. He is touring the United States to tell his story before attending Georgetown University in the fall.

Saria came to Exeter as part of a promise he made to himself.

“I made a vow to educate the uneducated and speak for those who can’t speak for themselves,” he said. “The reason why I decide to come and talk here, being a Syrian, a fortunate Syrian who was able to escape all the misery he’s gone through in his life, other Syrian refugees are not doing the same. Some will be killed in Intelligence centers. Some are actually dying on the border.”

Saria’s story, which he tells with candor and a humor that belies the frightening reality, begins in Canada, where he was born and lived till he was 6. His father moved the family to his native Syria to allow his children to experience a Middle Eastern upbringing.

Saria’s first kidnapping occurred at age 15 when forces loyal to President Bashar Al Assad snatched him and his cousin.

“I was led into an investigation room with a gray wall,” Saria said, recalling his interrogator’s Kent cigarette dangling from his lips. “He looked at me and said, ‘Tell me everything, or I’ll put you in a place even God won’t know where you are.’”

“And I looked at him, and knew I couldn’t show him weakness, and I said to him: ‘Would you like me to tell the truth or tell you something that would make you happy? Because these two things are different.’”

The episode was the first of many in which Saria recounts amazing bravery in the face of terror. He was released into the night hours later – “When I walked out of there, I was reborn again,” he would say – only to be taken again soon after, this time by rebel fighters.

The rebels, convinced Saria and his family were collaborating with government forces, tortured him physically and psychologically, Saria said. He told of being moved three times to avoid shelling from government forces, of a loaded gun being held to his forehead, of a phone call to his mother being cut off before he could say he loved her. Throughout the ordeal, Saria said he clung to his innocence and his faith.

“I don’t want you to think I was not afraid,” he told the assembly. “Every night I would cry. I would pray, ‘God, if it’s my time, let it be honorable. If not, give me the strength to fight these people.’”

His courage at first frustrated, then bewildered his abductors. When one of the kidnappers threatened to take one of his fingers as a souvenir of his captivity, Saria said he put his hands on the table and said, “Take the one you like.”

“’We told you he was crazy,’ they said.”

His faith and resolve ultimately broke his captors. They said he was stronger than they were and asked him to join their ranks. Eventually, they freed him for a small ransom. When he walked free, he said the rebels stood and saluted him as he climbed into his brother’s car.

“My brother, he was like, ‘Were you kidnapped or on vacation? I’m really confused.’”

Saria rejoined his family and worked making yogurt – “200 buckets of yogurt per day,” he recalled – but the same resolve that helped save his life led him to the decision to leave.  

“I confronted the reality: Do I want to keep sitting making yogurt here for the rest of my life? I want to participate in the future of building Syria. But without an education, I won’t be able to do so.”

Saria fled to Amman, Jordan. After working to improve his English and crowdfunding to cover tuition costs, he ultimately earned admission to Kings Academy as an 18-year-old sophomore. Before he matriculates to Georgetown, he is touring the United States to tell his remarkable story and raise awareness of Syria’s plight.

He closed his talk to a standing ovation, saying, “as clichéd as it might sound, no one can stop you until you decide to stop yourself.

“And my message that I always love to end with is that people will remember you for what you did for others, and not for what you did to yourselves.”