Haytham Alhamwi was imprisoned by Assad’s regime in the early 2000s. Today he helps coordinate a campaign to help Syrians studying in the UK
For Haytham Alhamwi, a 36 year-old Syrian PhD student at the University of Manchester, being tortured was not the worst part of being imprisoned by Assad’s regime.
“During interrogations they tortured you, but not that much,” he says, telling me he had expected far worse. “You hear in interviews what they’re doing to prisoners now. They beat the prisoners everywhere, with everything they have. They take their nails off, they break their knees, their elbows.”
In 2003 Mr Alhamwi was sentenced to four years in prison for organising anti-bribery campaigns and protests against the Assad regime in his home town of Daryya – an area four kilometres south-west of Damascus.
As part of his sentence he spent three months sharing a 3×3 underground prison cell with 40 other men.
“Not seeing sunlight for three months was difficult,” he says in a typically understated manner. “I had scabies, I had lice, I had all these problems.”
Mr Alhamwi’s campaigns against the regime began in earnest in the early 2000s, when he and his friends would meet to discuss books and the arts in secret while studying at Damascus University.
From this act of private protest, they would organise small scale community demonstrations, drawing attention to the rampant corruption in the country.
They ran a street cleaning campaign in Daryya to help win the support of the local people, and to challenge the regime’s control over all aspects of life.
Later they would organise protests, sometimes hundreds strong, while they also distributed anti-bribery posters to local businesses.
“We didn’t agree that everything we did should be controlled by the regime. We wanted to tell the regime ‘we are free men’ and we wanted to act like free men,” he explains.
As soon as the protests started, Assad’s forces became interested in Mr Alhamwi’s campaign. He was released from after serving two-and-a half years of his sentence following a presidential pardon; a result of a short-lived liberalisation of the Assad regime in 2005.
A few months later, despite protests from his wife and two children, he was back on the street protesting.
Today, from his office in Manchester the one-time political prisoner helps coordinate a campaign to get support for his compatriots at UK universities.
The pressures of civil war, sanctions and the closure of the Syrian embassy in London, have left many students struggling financially.
In January a student at Salford University, who had previously told The Mancunion that their savings had run out and that they were unable to ask their family for help, received a letter from their University telling them “they could not complete their studies” unless £10,140 fees were paid.
Another told us that in the absence of support from his family, or from his University in England, his situation had become impossible.
Mr Alhamawi, whose role in the campaign is to look to raise awareness about the plight of the Syrians studying in the North West, says the stance from the higher education sector and the British government has been unhelpful.
“If they can ignore it, they will ignore it, like any issue,” he says of the government.
After the campaign gained widespread attention and won support from the National Union of Students at the start of this year, a number of universities, including Salford, have reached an agreement to allow Syrians to continue with their studies, but not to graduate. Other institutions have waived fees entirely for those caught up in the crisis.
It is a great achievement for Mr Alhamwi and his friends in the British Syrian community.
But consumed with worries about family and friends in Syria and with little prospect of returning home as his country continues to tear itself apart, he doesn’t feel he has much to celebrate.
His family have inevitably been caught up in the turmoil back home. They decided to flee after his father suffered a heart-attack after being repeatedly arrested last year for protesting against the regime.
His father-in-law was arrested in July 2011, and he has not heard anything about him since. Since the outbreak of violence two years ago, communicating with political prisoners, already difficult when living in such an autocratic regime, has become virtually impossible.
“The prisons in Syria are like slaughter houses,” says Mr Alhamwi, matter-of-factly. “I’ve heard from my father how they torture people; about the people who die in prison.”
Unable to return home due to the war and the likelihood that he would be arrested as soon as he stepped foot in the country, Mr Alhamawi finds himself in a state of limbo, waiting for the regime to collapse but not knowing if or when this will happen. Never mind what might replace the Assad regime if it falls.
Before the violence started in 2011 he tells me he had booked his flights back to Syria so his children could be home in time for the start of the academic year. Two years later he has gained refugee status to stay in the UK, and his oldest son is set to take his GCSEs in Manchester.
“My kids are perhaps more interested in Manchester United than the Syrian cause, but I still dream of returning home,” he smiles.
Half-an-hour before I arrive to meet him, he gets a call from his supervisor telling him that he has passed his PhD in Occupational Health. A subject which he says interested him because it meant that he could help whole communities, rather than just individual patients.
It is this desire to help people that is one of the most striking things about him, whether he’s talking about protesting against bribery in Daryya, or fighting for those affected by the Syria crisis in the UK. I ask him what motivates his ceaseless campaigning.
“My motivation is human,” he says.
“As a Muslim I feel that I have a responsibility towards my people, towards everybody. I believe that we are not just individuals, we live in society and we should care about each other.”