Like most of you, I am ambivalent about social media. Most of the time it’s a love/hate relationship with both sides swinging wildly to the extremes. At its worst, social media can be an abyss of vile hatred perpetrated by ideologs of all stripes and aimed at complete strangers with opposing views. In the middle you find pretentious, unfulfilled individuals proffering faux images of their lives, created by digital smoke and mirrors. But I’ll not concentrate on those two generalized types of users for this blog and focus instead on the benefits of social media: Meeting virtual friends who turn out to be genuine and compassionate.

Reconnecting with long-lost friends from high school and making new friends in the process keeps me regularly engaged with social media. It’s nice to reminisce with old friends and learn of their life successes and even nicer to connect with new people who share my values. Still, one of the most intriguing and possibly the most significant virtual friendships I have made this past year is with a former political prisoner and asylum seeker from a totalitarian regime who now resides in a democratic country (not the US). He initiated the connection with me after seeing I was “friends” with a few of his friends on Facebook. Scanning his feed in depth, I then decided to accept his friend request, believing he would be a valuable virtual friend on that platform. Time would tell, of course.

Persona Revealed

His posts are delightful, a combination of global travel photos, self-deprecating humor and personal philosophy, three topics I enjoy. I was immediately drawn to his posts for the stunning images from countries he had recently visited that I longed to travel to one day. And when I say visited, I came to understand that he had been welcomed to those countries as a nomadic refugee. For months at a time. I am not at all familiar with other countries’ processes for dealing with asylum seekers. All I know is that he journeyed throughout Southeast Asia as a refugee, gaining wonderful adventures while healing his mind, body and soul from a lengthy and tortuous prison stint in his country of origin.  

At first, I wasn’t aware of his imprisonment, much less his months of torture and assumed he freely left his home country because of its theocracy and lack of personal freedom. It was only after viewing his occasional shared “memories” over the course of several months that I pieced together his previous existence as a political prisoner. Not knowing him well, I didn’t want to pry and ask inappropriate questions through private messages, but my curiosity and compassion got the better of me. When I finally messaged him last week, asking him if anyone had documented his ordeal—meaning if any writer had approached him about getting his story published—he offered to speak with me to detail about the torment inflicted upon him all those years ago. (We’ll be speaking on the phone soon.) In one of his memory posts, I read he had learned to practice a specific meditation technique in his cell that allowed him to quell the pain of the beatings.

Free and Fearless

What I still can’t reconcile is his sincere joyful spirit, his inimitable tranquility, which comes through in every one of his posts, no matter if they’re humorous, philosophical or political. He doesn’t seem to harbor any ill will toward his abusers or the world in general, though that could be a part of the healing process. He’d undoubtedly cheated death numerous times in that dreadful prison whether by starvation or severe beatings. With the assistance of Amnesty International, he was eventually released from prison, only to be cornered and attacked by young thugs on the day of his release. Dodging them and forced into hiding, he was again helped by Amnesty International to escape his homeland. But it took two attempts, two weeks apart, to successfully leave his country of origin. With his passport blacklisted, he has been traveling for more than seven years as a non-citizen nomad.

It’s the writer in me that drives my interest in his story, and the human in me that wants to offer any help I can in his pursuit of becoming a citizen in the country of his choosing. I believe his story needs to be told because there is still too much suffering in this world, too many political prisoners being tortured and ultimately murdered. His courage and perseverance are inspiring to me and are testaments to his love of life.