Insights and Impact

Home Free 

By

Photo­graphy by
Jeff Watts

Side by side pictures of Deyaa Alrwishdi wearing a red keffiyeh over his face and on his shoulders

Three years passed in this tiring jail that is not large enough for my sorrow.

Three years passed, I have learned so many things. I’ve become so much wiser and more patient.

However, I’m still in prison as a bird in the cage, a bird whose only dream is to fly.

Fly freely, again and again. And breathe freedom.

The words that flow from Deyaa Alrwishdi’s pen late at night send him adrift.

In both Arabic and English, he imagines floating without a destination on the horizon. For Alrwishdi, WCL/LLM ’17, SPA/MPA ’21, these stanzas celebrate freedom of movement. But they once described a life without it.

In fall 2017, the native Syrian’s father was killed by ISIS, and Alrwishdi sat trapped a world away in DC, unable to return home and mourn with his loved ones. He poured his pain and anger into “Breathe Freedom,” a poem that a friend, Astrid Kuljanic, set to music at Carnegie Hall a week later.

Alrwishdi, now the director of the Washington College of Law’s Syrian Initiative to Combat Sexual and Gender-Based Violence, called the United States his exile. He arrived here in 2014 on a short visa with one suitcase, prepared only for a three-month fellowship, but his stay became indefinite.

A return to his temporary residence in Turkey would be burdened with heavy restrictions, and a renewal of his Syrian passport was impossible: The US government closed the Syrian embassy in Washington, and Alrwishdi was wanted by the Syrian government.

“I ended up nearly stateless.” 

Out of options and fearing persecution, Alrwishdi applied for asylum in October 2014 and sat in limbo for five years. He made biweekly trips to the Arlington (Virginia) Asylum Office but watched helplessly as his application collected dust while immigration officials sought primary documents they had little chance of obtaining from war-torn Syria—a nation that has seen nearly 13 million people displaced since 2011.

Alrwishdi has grown to love his adopted homeland “the difficult way.” He spent five frustrating years fighting for asylum before it was finally granted in October 2019. But while he waited, he finished one graduate program in international legal studies and started another in public administration. He won a State Department contract and grewhis network.

He also learned—again—how to rebuild his life.

My guilt is that I dared to dream of a moment whose law is love and compassion.

The Arab Spring heated up in early 2011, and many in Homs, Syria, whispered excitedly about the coming protests. They were frustrated by government corruption yet fearful of state intelligence agencies.

On March 25, 2011, Alrwishdi and a friend drove through downtown Homs looking for coffee after midday prayer when they heard chanting and yelling in the streets. As an administrative lawyer, Alrwishdi was employed by the same institution his fellow Syrians opposed. Yet, “driven by cause and values,” he followed his moral compass and joined the mass of nonviolent protestors that would grow 10,000 strong as it snaked toward municipal buildings in “Freedom Square.”

“Nearly all of my family had some type of work experience with the government, and I knew the government, so I knew that it was not good, that it was corrupt,” Alrwishdi says. “That’s why, when the moment came,I [joined] the first protest in the province.”

Alrwishdi leaned into his status to aid those who opposed President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, using his government ID to cross checkpoints and smuggle medicine and internet to activists documenting human rights abuses in besieged areas. He bailed out jailed protestors, even those he didn’t know, and continued attending protests—but with his face covered with a cloth. Caution guided Alrwishdi, who knew the deadly consequences awaiting a “traitorous” government employee.

“We had circles of trust around us,” says Noura Al-Jizawi, an organizer of the Syrian uprising who met Alrwishdi in 2011—and who still has his phone contact saved as an old alias, “Nawar Saif.” After she was detained by pro-Assad forces for six months in 2012, Al-Jizawi fled to Turkey.      

“Under daily questioning, I was making sure I didn’t speak of anything,” she says. “I wanted to keep other activists out of detention, protected, and secure. Thank God, Deyaa was not detained.”

Alrwishdi had suspected since May 2012 that he was under government surveillance. He confirmed it in August. While heading to Lebanon to visit his sister, a guard stopped him at the border and ordered him to go to Military Intelligence Branch 291 in Damascus—one of many government facilities linked to reports of torture by Human Rights Watch—for questioning.

Because there wasn’t a documented reason for his travel restriction, Alrwishdi kept his passport, but he couldn’t dodge arrest much longer. He had to flee Syria.

Shuffling between residences in Homs’s Al-Waer neighborhood allowed Alrwishdi to avoid detainment and buy enough time to work his government contacts for a way out. When he received permission to fly to Lebanon, he seized the shrinking window of opportunity. The day Alrwishdi touched down in Beirut, he boarded a flight to Istanbul and crossed his fingers.

“It was one of the times in my life where I did not have a Plan B. It was only Plan A, and hoping it would work,” he says. “I could not survive in Lebanon for years because I knew I would end up being kidnapped from there like so many activists were.”

Alrwishdi landed in Istanbul and spent two days on a bus to Reyhanli, just minutes from Syria’s northwestern border. There, he was well-positioned—geographically and professionally—to continue his activist work. Alrwishdi connected his legal contacts to form the Free Syrian Lawyers Association (FSLA), a diaspora network of attorneys focused on human rights and the rule of law.

FSLA started by training activists in humanitarian law and establishing legal clinics to lay the groundwork for governance in conflict zones—lessons they’d bring back to their communities. In 2013, after an influx of State Department dollars, FSLA launched a program to train Syrian lawyers and activists to use cameras to generate legal evidence, and another project to encourage the formation of local councils to set up governance systems.

Alrwishdi’s life was itinerant. While working in Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey, he slept in hotels, offices, and apartments, never lingering in one place for longer than a week. Activists who stay put risk losing passion, Alrwishdi says. They also jeopardize their safety.

In late 2013, a State Department official suggested that Alrwishdi apply for Leaders for Democracy—a fellowship founded by the agency in 2007 to boost civic engagement in the Middle East and North Africa. He jumped at the chance to hone his social entrepreneurship and leadership skills and expand his English beyond the 500 words he knew. Once again, Alrwishdi was on the move.

The only crime I committed is being free and trying to build a homeland that grants every woman a crown.

The Syrian Initiative to Combat Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) was established in late 2018 with a $1.76 million State Department grant. Its aim: to reduce the stigmatization of SGBV survivors in Syria, promote accountability, and educate and support advocates working with survivors.

In Syria, sexual violence is used to repress and dehumanize dissenters—often women, but also men—during raids, at checkpoints, and in detention. A 2018 United Nations Human Rights Council report linked 20 Syrian government facilities with sexual assault against women and girls and 15 with sexual violence against men and boys.

The magnitude of SGBV in Syria is difficult to assess, as survivors are scattered and are often reluctant to come forward, fearing reprisal or ostracization from their communities. In addition, more than 100,000 Syrians are unaccounted for following detention or abduction.

But “societal disease,” Alrwishdi says, does not need to be quantified.

“The suffering of people is by itself qualitative,” he says, “and every story is worth our attention and effort.”

Fighting for a Syria in which perpetrators of war crimes are brought to justice in a court of law first requires reforming the court of public opinion. This means chipping away at denial and normalizing public discussions about SGBV to help survivors feel they can come forward without fear of revictimization.

In just 16 months, the Syrian Initiative published self-care and advocacy guidelines for practitioners working with SGBV survivors; released a 70-page report on the realities of SGBV in Syria; and administered an online, Arabic-language international law course for advocates. It also strengthened partnerships with civil society organizations committed to establishing trust and building awareness in diverse communities across the country.

“Mostly, [SGBV] has been treated as a secret issue or a hidden issue,” says Silja Aebersold, WCL/SJD ’20, a consultant with FSLA, one of the Syrian Initiative’s partner organizations. “A very local approach [to changing that] is the only way to proceed, but this is, of course, difficult, and it takes a lot of time.”

If impunity persists for perpetrators of SGBV, says Al-Jizawi, chair of Start Point, another Syrian Initiative partner, it will remain elsewhere. The fight against SGBV is a fight for the rule of law.

“If we do not hold these war criminals accountable, the situation for women and vulnerable people in Syria is going to be worse. Without justice, without accountability, we can’t consider any sort of peace in the future.”

Oh, my lord, would you make me into breeze so I can travel to my mother and touch her hands?

In May 2018, Alrwishdi was granted a respite; he had the US government’s permission to leave the country.

He briefly reunited with his mother in Lebanon but after six years, she was a stranger—a reminder of what he left behind.

“Staying in Syria, in the conflict, had aged her,” Alrwishdi says. “I left her young and strong, and then I saw her, and it was like seeing my grandmother. It was painful.”

Alrwishdi’s mother and youngest brother, a doctor in training, remain in Syria. Like any son, Alrwishdi is concerned about his aging mother’s well-being. He asks her advice to keep her engaged in his life, and he considers their 4:30 a.m. phone call the most important part of his day. Alrwishdi prays for his loved ones’ continued safety, though he knows he cannot guarantee it. That is the reality of the Syrian conflict, but it’s one he still fights to change.

When a team from WCL met with State Department officials in 2018 to discuss the grant, it was clear to Professor Padideh Ala’i why they had been selected. They had extensive expertise in gender and human rights law and strong grant writers. But most importantly, they had Alrwishdi. Like Ala’i—whose Bahá’í family fled Iran when she was 14—he knows the cost of war but remains connected and committed to his homeland.

“Deyaa could very easily just not live that nightmare anymore. He could be a very successful business lawyer if he wanted to be,” says Ala’i, lead principal investigator. “But he doesn’t want to let go of his country. He wants to play a part in helping it and rebuilding it.”

Alrwishdi is usually chatting with program coordinators in Turkey by 5 a.m. On days when he doesn’t have evening MPA classes, he is in the office until 7 p.m. He doesn’t have hobbies, a robust social life, or a significant other. But the sacrifice isn’t just for the salary. This is personal.

“My life revolves around this,” Alrwishdi says. “I want to make sure the program goes beyond other people’s expectations because I know the US Department of State, I know the professors here, and I know our [partners].”

He knows the beneficiaries too. They are his people.