Entering Brown University’s Stephen Robert Hall was an overwhelming ordeal, the hall was buzzing with activity from students, faculty, and guests as everyone prepared for the evening’s discussion. The full house was in preparation for the evening’s event: “Experiences of Incarceration in the United States and Syria.” On Tuesday, January 29th, 2019 Brown Students Organize for Syria and Brown’s Middle East Studies held a collaborative event featuring two formerly incarcerated men: José Diaz and Omar Alshogre. Alex Winder, a Visiting Assistant Professor in Middle East Studies and Director of Undergraduate Studies, facilitated the event. He introduced the discussion as a comparative look at incarceration in the U.S. and Syria. He said he expected the ensuing conversation to benefit our understanding of these two different situations through discussing them in conjunction. The event felt unprecedented because of its emphasis on personal experience to focus our understanding of incarceration’s effects on “individuals, families, and communities.”
In Alex Winder’s introduction, he emphasized the need for engagement and interaction between people, particularly between those who are incarcerated and those who are free. He specifically iterated the importance of prison education initiatives, like Brown’s or NYU’s. The first speaker, José Diaz, is a former inmate and current student at NYU working on a BA/MA track in Latino studies. He participated in NYU’s program while in prison and now works for them as a student liaison. José began by describing his time in prison and his reliance on learning and reading. He discussed his love for philosophy that helped him through prison. He emphasized “time” and taking the time he was given to learn. He then read us a story written in prison about his sister after her passing. The story welcomed the audience into understanding José’s growing up and the impacts of the world around him.
The second speaker was Omar Alshogre, first arrested at 15 and then imprisoned at 17 for the next three years. He was eventually put into Syria’s notorious Sednaya Prison, “the Silent prison.” Omar now lives in Sweden and is an international speaker. He began protesting the situation in Syria when he was 15, not thoroughly understanding what he was protesting and its implications. After his first protest, however, he did understand and continued. Omar discussed his education in the “University of Whispers” at Sednaya Prison and the extreme violence and torture he endured while there.
After both of the speakers’ introductions, the program continued with a Q&A format. The questions began as expected with audience members asking about their memories of prison. Eventually, they became more poignant by inquiring about José and Omar’s own view of their experiences, with one graduate student from Brown asking if José saw himself as a political prisoner. José said “no, I would not consider myself a political prisoner. I didn’t do anything political…” Later he would discuss why he was in prison and said that to call himself a political prisoner would be to dishonor ones who are. The grad student appeared to be asking about the effects of politics on prisoners, specifically in relation to the U.S.’s disproportionate number of prisoners who are people of color and the inequality they experience. The question was in essence asking are people of color who become involved in crime as a way to sustain themselves, political prisoners?
Toward the end, a man sitting behind me stood up to speak; he was a Syrian journalist who had also been incarcerated in Syria. He said he disagreed with Alex in comparing these two kinds of “facilities.” He saw the conditions faced by prisoners in Syria as being incomparable to those in the U.S. He made a point to specifically use the word “facilities” instead of prisons because as he described it they “are not prisons these are concentration camps.” He was visibly upset and emotional. As an audience member, the comparison had felt awkward in many ways because they were not “equatable.” Eventually, Alex did say that he did not think they were capable of comparison either.
The conversation then turned to the topic of our responsibility to the current situation in Syria. Specifically for us as people capable of witnessing through media what is happening in Syria–while people are being systematically arrested, tortured, and extrajudicially killed. To what extent can and should we assist from afar? According to the Washington Post, “After seven years of war, more than 100,000 Syrian detainees remain unaccounted for. According to the United Nations and human rights groups, thousands, if not tens of thousands, are probably dead.” Someone said at one point “we should do something.” Which after hearing personal accounts of torture and watching two men exchange their lived knowledge of violence generates the immediate reaction–of course, we should. What can we as the general public in order to assist people in prisons and change our own country’s policies? Particularly, when we do not have direct power to do so and it is left up to our elected representatives. Soon someone asked if solidarity was enough and if the event and discussion were good enough. José answered this question with “I don’t think solidarity is enough.” Which is absolutely true. He continued by saying we need to make actual impacts and stop looking at other humans with disgust. He also said that as we do that, we are embodying our politics. He explained we cannot push people out of society because they are former inmates, but instead we need to welcome and assist them.
The discussion was extremely intense to witness. There was a great deal of passion in the room. I think an important consideration I brought away from it was how can I embody politics so that I am better fulfilling my own beliefs? This also brings up the issue of how each of us can participate more in supporting and including people, particularly former inmates, in communities as well as breakdown the stigma surrounding incarceration. The discussion also brought up considerations of democracy both in the U.S. and in Syria. The current situations are extremely different, but as Omar mentioned, it just happened to him one day. The signs are not always obvious and one day you could wake up living in a similar situation. Many former felons cannot vote in different U.S. states. Is that liberally democratic? Omar’s comment really stuck because we as citizens need to constantly be active and participating in order to prevent democratic erosion.
For those who are interested, the entire discussion can be viewed here, if you have the time I would highly suggest it.
You can also read news coverage of the discussion at the Providence Journal.