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Four years after his release, St. Louis-raised Sam Goodwin details captivity in Syria’s prisons

Sam Goodwin is photographed on Friday, Dec. 29, 2023, at his parents’ home in Des Peres, Mo. On a mission to visit every country in the world, in 2019 Goodwin visited Syria. He was detained at a checkpoint and spent 63 days in the country’s notorious prisons before being released. His upcoming book, “Saving Sam,” details his experience.
Tristen Rouse
St. Louis Public Radio
Sam Goodwin is photographed on Friday at his parents’ home in Des Peres. On a mission to visit every country in the world, in 2019 Goodwin visited Syria. He was detained at a checkpoint and spent 62 days in one of the country’s notorious prisons before being released. His upcoming book, “Saving Sam,” details his experience.

St. Louis-raised Sam Goodwin is still thanking people who played a role in securing his release from Syria’s notorious prison system four years ago.

“One of the most overwhelming things for me has been learning about everything that happened on the outside while I was trapped on the inside, none of which I knew during that time,” said Goodwin, one of few Americans released from Syrian detention.

Held initially in solitary confinement in a windowless, cement cell, Goodwin had no way of knowing if he’d get to return home or see his family again.

“In just a few short hours, my life had spiraled out of control in the most terrifying of ways. I felt exactly the way they wanted me to — hopeless, utterly cut off from any control of my life,” Goodwin said.

His forthcoming book about his captivity, “Saving Sam,” goes on presale late this month.

In 2019, Goodwin was just 13 countries away from having visited every country in the world. He took precautions before entering Syria and looked forward to experiencing the country's culture and heritage, but his trip was derailed when he was wrongfully detained by authorities on charges of espionage. Today, he’s still putting together the pieces, but as far as he can tell, he was simply “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

After being detained at a military checkpoint near his hotel in northeastern Syria, Goodwin was transferred to the country’s capital and held in solitary confinement at Branch 215, a brutal prison with thousands of documented cases of executions and mass torture, according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Halfway through 63 days of detention in Syria, Goodwin was moved to Adra Prison. Here, he was no longer alone but surrounded by about 40 men, some of whom he befriended and still keeps in touch with.

Despite brutal prison conditions and the terrifying uncertainty, Goodwin said the men he shared time with in prison were hospitable and treated him like a guest.

“That proved to be one of the brightest moments of my captivity,” Goodwin said. “It really demonstrates the humanity that I experienced in that place.”

One of Goodwin’s fellow inmates helped him smuggle a message out of Adra. The note was given to the inmate’s friend, who sent it to his relatives, who then called Goodwin’s father.

“This was the first time that my family had managed to hear anything from me,” Goodwin said.

After he was released, Goodwin learned that his fellow inmates' connections were to a Syrian American family who live in his hometown of St. Louis.

“[It’s] overwhelming to learn about all of the people who were involved. Some of these things I'm still uncovering today,” he said. “It’s really remarkable.”

After 63 days in detention, Goodwin was reunited with his parents in Beirut, Lebanon, after a top Lebanese security official negotiated his release with the Syrian government.

Goodwin said he never wants to relive his time in captivity in Syria's unjust prisons.

“But on the other hand, I would never want to give up everything that's come from it, the opportunity to meet some remarkable people to grow in character and in faith and an understanding of the stuff in life that actually matters,” he said.

For the full conversation with Sam Goodwin about his captivity in Syria, how connections and coincidence were central to his release, and the lessons learned from his terrifying experience, listen to the full St. Louis on the Air conversation on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google Podcast, Stitcher, or by clicking the play button below.

Sam Goodwin shares his story of wrongful detention in Syria

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Ulaa Kuziez is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to talk@stlpr.org

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Ulaa Kuziez is a junior studying Journalism and Media at Saint Louis University. She enjoys storytelling and has worked with various student publications. In her free time, you can find her at local parks and libraries with her nephews.