A massive iron gate slides aside. Beyond it, rows of grimy, barred windows tower above a grey courtyard. Old blankets drape as sunshields over some, drying clothes hang from others, and a lone hand waves from a grilled window.
Above: In a clip from You Are Not Alone, Shafik tells presenter Sirene that growing in faith through a weekly meeting in prison has given him freedom
SAT-7 ARABIC’s You Are Not Alone programme has come to Roumieh prison, Lebanon’s largest and central jail. It is a decaying holding place that sometimes holds three times its intended capacity of 1,050 inmates and, since Lebanon’s economic collapse, has been starved of needed funding.
News reports have drawn attention to the rationing of electricity, poor hygiene, water shortages and “inedible” food in the prison. Prisoners also have to pay for their own medical care or go without.
This is one of three episodes that presenter Sirene Semerdjian has dedicated to hearing the stories of offenders and ex-prisoners. In one of the other episodes, she visits visits Barbar El Kazan women’s prison and hears three inmates’ stories of struggle and faith. The third is a studio episode featuring a pastor who sees lives changed in jail and an ex-prisoner who found Christ but whose freedom is limited by the discrimination he faces outside.
Lebanese people generally have a judgmental, uncaring attitude towards prisoners, Sirene says, but she had two aims in making these episodes.
One was to bring “a true, real and raw message from prisoners who killed and did the worst crimes you can think of but now they are remorseful and a lot of them came to Christ inside the prison. We wanted to say, that even if this person committed the worst act ever, they deserve a second chance. While they are in prison, they should be given a respectful life.
“Also, we wanted to share with the viewers to never lose hope, even in the darkest place you could always start over.”
A number of prisoners in Roumieh expressed how this had become true for them. One, who has spent five years in prison for drug dealing and who chose to remain anonymous, said. “Yes, I regret what I did because I wronged myself and those around me. I also regret what I did because I made God unhappy with my wrong ways. Yet, He is with me and shows me my wrongs.”
He thanked God for weekly Christian meetings taken by volunteers who visit and said his faith had helped him to “learn discipline and love”.
Shafik, who was also jailed for drug offences, said that losing his freedom set him thinking about the things of real value in his life – The things I did, the things I lost, the people who came to visit me and those who didn’t. Only my family came; those who pushed me into drug dealing never came.”
The weekly church meeting also had a life-changing impact on him. Despite being confined within prison walls, he said, “The best thing about it is that I feel free inside. I am totally free. I don’t care about the walls. I am free in Jesus. I am free from all material and worldly things.”
Fawzy has served nine years of a 30-year sentence for killing someone. As he spoke to Sirene, he held a poetry book he had written and explained how writing gives him a sense of purpose.
“I wrote this book to prove that I exist as opposed to the mainstream thought that once a person is imprisoned they are gone. I wanted to prove that I can do something in a place where it is impossible for a person to do anything of value. I wanted to prove myself as a human.
Asked how he keeps hope alive with such a long prison sentence, he said, “One must have confidence in oneself, but the best motivation to continue and remain hopeful is the relationship between man and God.”
Like Fawzy, Emad has found ways of using his abilities positively – for himself and for others. “Because I am a graduate of the University of Lebanon, I convinced the prison management to allow a hall to be used to alleviate illiteracy. I teach Arabic and Spanish, and my colleague teaches English. Three hundred people graduated.”
In his five years in Roumieh from drug offences, Emad has been prolific. He has written a book about teaching adults, two books about his own and another inmate’s time in prison, and he has penned 160 songs and poems.
A question Sirene asked each man in Roumieh was, “What is your message to viewers?” Emad’s advice was clear: “Everyone must work on themselves, discover their abilities. Don’t do wrong.”
Like other prisoners, he admitted that the isolation and conditions of prison life can be “damaging to the soul”. Nevertheless, he said, “I feel alone when everyone leaves me, but God never does.”
Abdullah, jailed for selling stolen vehicles, stressed the pain of rejection by people he used to know who no longer answer his phone calls. Asked what he missed most, he replied, “I miss my son whose birthday is tomorrow. His name is Jihad. I will miss his birthday, but I hope I don’t miss the next one. We talk on the phone.”
“I have felt lonely ever since I came here,” he says thoughtfully. “But now I feel that Jesus is with me. He helps and supports me.”
Above: In a clip from You Are Not Alone Abdullah tells Sirene, “Jesus changed me from the inside.”
Before the episode ended, a number of men shared their feelings anonymously – feelings of regret at their own actions, at time wasted, and anger at their inadequate treatment. “No one feels our pain or hears our cries,” one said.
But, as the men returned to their cells and the You Are Not Alone camera once again panned around the windows over the courtyard, thousands of viewers were able to reflect. They had heard the voices of people their society has shut away, glimpsed their humanity and seen their potential.
Let’s pray that viewers will be inspired by these episodes and seeing that God’s love can remake any life – theirs, yours, and those detained behind prison walls.
What is life like in a women’s prison in Lebanon? Read the moving stories of women as told to You Are Not Alone presenter, Sirene Semerdjian