My Life as a Refugee
June 22, 2018
Omar al-Muqdad – a prominent journalist, documentary filmmaker, and former Syrian refugee – writes a bi-monthly blog for CMS titled, “Dispatches from the Global Crisis in Refugee Protection.” This series covers the Syrian Civil War, the experiences of Syria’s immense and far-flung refugee population, the global crisis in refugee protection, religious persecution, and US refugee and immigration policies. Mr. al-Muqdad’s work has been featured by the BBC, CNN, and in many other media outlets. Resettled in the United States in 2012, Mr. al-Muqdad became a US citizen in Spring 2018. CMS will be featuring this work in its weekly Migration Update and on its website.
Just seven years ago I would have never imagined myself as a refugee. But since the revolution started in Syria, my country has been engulfed in what seems like a never ending war, and my life has been changed forever.
When I first arrived to the United States in 2012, and I was given my first piece of identification, I felt as if a whole new person had been reborn – a person who had been lost and then been found. When I left Syria, I had nothing on me but my broken heart. I had no idea where my fate would take me. I left a country that I was not welcomed in anymore, a country run by a tyrant regime that took away my loved ones and my identity, and that destroyed my home and my memories. My humble story could echo the feeling of my people and the millions of immigrants and refugees who are seeking the dream of freedom and safety for themselves and their loved ones.
Years before the Syrian revolution started, I was a hard working journalist with many ambitions and dreams. But it was almost impossible to practice my career without being harassed and questioned by the authorities. At one point, I decided to establish a private newspaper which I worked hard on, but it was shut down after I wrote an article that was critical of the government. The Syrian regime used to imprison anyone who dared to criticize it and its institutions or to question its legitimacy. Unfortunately, I was one of the people incarcerated for speaking my mind about the regime.
My trial took place in a military court, and I was sentenced to three years in prison. I spent most of that time in a terrible military prison where I was subjected to systematic torture for four months in a row. My torture took many different shapes. Like many others in my case, when my time in prison had ended, they took away my ID and passport and threw me out of prison. I went back to my work, but this time secretively and underground.
In 2011, when the unrest broke out in my hometown of Dara’a, the birthplace of the Syrian revolution, the regime did not allow the peaceful protests of my people to go on and all of us were exposed to barbaric treatment and vicious killing by the Syrian armed forces. I witnessed family members, friends, and neighbors getting detained or killed by the Syrian regime. In one of the protests that I participated in, the armed forces stormed the crowd and started shooting randomly at us. One bullet missed me by a few inches and landed in my friend’s chest. I knew then that I only had two possibilities in my country – death or detention. From that point on, things got more violent and I had no choice but to flee Syria. Over a long period, I traveled undercover by foot and by car until I reached Turkey.
In the darkest of days, and in the hardest of times, the people who show up in your life and offer help are the ones who mean everything to you. When refugee agencies and services show up in a refugee’s life, they show you that there is hope and maybe a future for you, and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I was approached by a Catholic charity who showed a lot of compassion. They cared, they listened, and they offered me all kinds of help. They followed up and checked on me regularly. It’s enough that they valued me as human being with dignity, because dignity is more important than food and aid.
I was so fortunate to have found a new home in Arkansas, where I experienced the true hospitality and generosity of the South. I was so pleased by how friendly people were. In the little town of Fayetteville, I was welcomed with open arms by everyone I met, and I became part of the community in a matter of weeks. Being here in the United States, “the land of the free,” gave me a new chance in life, a new beginning. I was finally able to feel the true meaning of freedom. I found the kind of freedom that I needed the most as a human being and, of course, as a journalist – the kind of freedom I wish for all my people who have lived under a hostile regime, who have been deprived of even the minimum of human rights, and who have suffered from bombs, death, and destruction.
My future looks so bright right now and I have plans underway – to continue my education and my work in journalism and in making documentary films. I’m now in the final stages of producing a documentary about Thomas Jefferson, and there is a short film on its way as well: it’s about my own story.