Niagara University alumnus Sam Goodwin, ’12, returned to his alma mater on Oct. 26, 2022, to talk about the nine weeks in 2019 that he spent imprisoned in Syria, including solitary confinement, a sham trial, blindfolded interrogations and, ultimately, a dramatic release. His presentation, “Winning Through Uncertainty,” offered as the 2022 Peggy and John Day University Honors Lecture, focused on how he embraced uncertainty during this time and the efforts it took to survive captivity.
After graduation, Goodwin accepted a position with a tech startup and an NGO in Singapore. Taking advantage of the flexibility the position allowed him, Goodwin spent as much time as he could traveling around the world. When he realized he had been to 120 of the 193 sovereign states recognized by the UN, he decided he wanted to try and visit all of them.
“I didn’t know if I could do this, but I became committed to working to achieve something that I thought was extraordinary,” he said.
In the spring of 2019, he had traveled to 180 of 193 countries. His next destination was Syria. On May 25, 2019, with the permission of the U.S.-backed Kurdish authorities, he entered the northeast region of Syria and went to the town of Qamishli. Just two hours later, he was apprehended and taken to Branch 215, the notorious military detainment center run by the Military Intelligence Directorate in Damascus. For 27 days, he lived in solitary confinement, in windowless cement cell in the basement of the prison. He was then moved to Adra prison, where he remained for 35 days. He went to court four times, and each time, he said, the judge denied him a lawyer, a translator, and continued to characterize him as a spy and a terrorist. He was finally released on July 26, 2019, through the efforts of family, friends, and those who were imprisoned with him.
During his captivity, Goodwin said he found strength through the perspectives that he gained during his travels, including gratitude for the basic food and water he was being given. He also drew on the mental toughness, critical thinking, and resiliency that he developed as a competitive athlete, including his four years on the Niagara University Division 1 men’s hockey team. His strong Catholic faith also gave him strength, he said.
After returning home from his ordeal, Goodwin was still determined to complete his quest to visit every country in the world. He achieved this goal on Dec. 31, 2019, in Brazil, celebrating the start of a new year as he watched fireworks with friends on Copacabana Beach.
Goodwin earned his B.A. in communication studies and French from Niagara University. He has played and coached hockey in destinations like India, Turkmenistan, and North Korea, and led humanitarian efforts across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
The Peggy and John Day University Honors Lecture Series was established through a gift from Margaret Ranft, ’77, and John Day.