On May 5th, 2018, Swarthmore College held an end-of-semester symposium called Searching for Sanctuary: Borders, Migration, and Human Rights. The symposium included, among other things, a panel on sanctuary that was moderated by Assistant Professor of English Literature Sangina Patnaik. The panel included the following speakers:
- Jennifer Marks-Gold, Director of International Student Services, Swarthmore College
- Walid Musarsa, Board Member, Every Campus a Refuge
- Cynthia Dewi Oka, facilitator of Sanctuary: A Migrant Poetry Workshop
- Osama Herkal, collaborator on Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary
The panelists were asked, “How did immigration and forced migration play a central role in understanding your work?” Each of the four speakers had a deeply personal response to the question, but Osama’s was particularly poignant.
When it was Osama’s turn to respond to Prof. Patnaik’s question, Osama chose to stand as a sign of respect for and importance of the story he was about to share. Speaking in Arabic, Walid—who had met Osama through the Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary project— interpreted his story for the audience to understand. This was a testament to the space of trust and sanctuary that was created through the project and extended into the symposium.
Osama’s remarks combined his personal story and experiences with the events, policies, and reactions to the current refugee crisis, particularly in Syria He noted how important it is to him that people hear and see what is happening in Syria beyond the portrayals in the media. From Osama’s perspective, the Syrian conflict began when civilians took to the streets in 2011 to protest the lack of political rights and called for democracy. These protests were similar to the ones in neighboring Arab countries of Tunisia and Egypt. However, the situation escalated when Hamza Al-Khateeb, a 13-year-old-boy, was tortured and killed by the Syrian government for participating in a protest. This incident led to more anger, more violence, and contributed to the Syrian Civil War as we know it today.
Before escaping to Egypt from Syria, Osama was arrested, imprisoned, and tortured for nine months. He described the very small room he was placed in with many other men—so many men, he said, that they were forced to take turns sleeping and standing. That was the least of the brutal and inhumane torture methods that were used against him and other prisoners. This deeply affected the audience, whose tears ran down their cheeks, listening to the painful recollection. He was in tears himself as he evoked those terrified feelings that he might never see his children again. It was his family, he said, who kept him going through those nine months, and all the months after they had to move from place to place in war-torn Syria.
Osama brought a personal the perspective to the topic of sanctuary to the symposium. Although tears were shed, everyone was able to hear and feel how grateful Osama is to be in the U.S. to be able to give his children an education, provide semblance of security and stability, and most importantly a bright future. Osama said that the United States felt like a place of sanctuary, but through the Friends, Peace, and Sanctuary project, he realized there is a deeper level of sanctuary—to be in a place among people where you can share and be who you truly are.