On August 19, 2014, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS (also known as ISIL or DAIISH) released the monstrous video of the beheading of journalist James Foley.
Some of us didn’t know who James Foley was until he was tragically and shockingly taken from this world.
To pay tribute to this man, a successful veteran of the journalism profession, let’s take a look at how he lived.
Born in 1973, James Foley grew up in New Hampshire, the oldest of five siblings. He graduated from Kingswood Regional High School in Wolfeboro, NH.
A Boston Globe article by Bryan Marquard and Zachary T. Sampson (August 21, 2014) shares memories from his schoolmate Paul D’Amours, including Foley showing up to prom in an “aqua blue convertible, top down” wearing a “baby blue tuxedo,” and his stellar performance on a broadcasted quiz show called the “Granite State Challenge. “I was always amazed by the breadth of his seemingly endless knowledge, particularly when it came to world affairs,” said D’Amours, as quoted by The Boston Globe.
Foley graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history from Marquette University in 1996. He went on to teach in various places, including disadvantage youth in Phoenix with Teach for America, and prison inmates in Chicago through a Cook County Sheriff’s Department program.
In 2003, Foley graduated with a master’s degree of fine arts in fiction writing from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. His mother Diane Foley said, as quoted by Curtis Brainard’s Columbia Journalism Review’s profile, that while writing fiction, her son realized “the stories he wanted to tell were real stories – stories about people’s lives – and he saw journalism as a vehicle for talking about what’s really happening in the world.”
In 2007, Foley began his new career by attending Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, and graduating the next year.
According to The New Yorker’s Mark Singer (August 22, 2014), while studying journalism at Medill, Foley completed a course called “Covering Conflicts” which included mock kidnapping simulations.
During his career as a freelance journalist, Foley was actually kidnapped twice. The first time was in 2011 in Libya where he was held captive for 44 days. During the ambush, photojournalist Anton Hammerl was shot and killed.
In November 2012, while freelancing for GlobalPost and Agence France-Presse in Syria, Foley was kidnapped again and detained until his assassination.
“He was passionate about reporting from the frontlines of the world’s conflict zones and telling the stories of innocent people trapped in them,” reported CBC News’ Meagan Fitzpatrick (August 20, 2014). “The dangerous places he worked in included Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan before his abduction in Syria in 2012…‘I believe that frontline journalism is important, [said Foley in a Boston Globe interview after Libya]. Without these photos and videos and first-hand experience, we can’t really tell the world how bad it might be,’ he said. ‘These kinds of things are very important to me.’”
“He was as much a humanitarian as he was a journalist,” said John Foley, describing his son, as quoted in Fitzpatrick’s CBC News article.
The driving force for Foley’s bravery was his deep and genuine desire to tell the stories of those who needed a voice.
Foley’s mother described how amazed she was that he could connect to the local people in Syria—who “grew to love him”—without even being able to speak their language.
Those who knew him said Foley was not only willing, but wanted to be in areas that many people avoided, whether it was a rough neighborhood in the U.S or a conflict zone.
Stephan Garnett, one of Foley’s journalism professors, asked him why he lived in a particular Chicago area that was so far removed from his “typical white clapboard” New Hampshire upbringing. Foley responded (as quoted by The Boston Globe’s Marquard and Sampson) “That’s where the real people are.”
Clare Morgana Gillis, who was one of Foley’s fellow captors in Libya, described his generous and friendly nature in her May 2013 Syria Deeply blog piece. She shared that everybody he met instantly liked him and how he helped her adapt to reporting in a war zone: “Having spent years reporting on conflict, Jim told me when to duck and when to run. If he had a sandwich, he’d offer me half; if down to one cigarette, he’d pass it back and forth. He saved my life twice before I’d known him a full month.”
Gillis also shared that during their time they shared a cell together, Foley would come up with ways to keep them entertained, like coming up with daily discussion or entertaining questions.
While detained in Syria, Foley spent captivity with 17 other hostages. In his last letter to his family, he shared that he and his fellow captors would play games to pass the time, from trivia to checkers and chess using scraps they found in the cell. (I can’t help but think Foley may have organized these.)
Singer, in his The New Yorker piece, described how Foley’s great level of empathy even extended to understanding why his captors during the 2011 Libya kidnapping celebrated or “made light” of what they had just done, “as a way to mask the confusion and the pain that inflicting violence must cause.”
James Foley’s Legacy
A true symbol to James Foley’s life, his family is setting up The James W. Foley Legacy Fund (which will support programs like protecting journalists and educating disadvantaged youth) and The James Foley scholarship. They are accepting donations for these instead of the customary things, like flowers or food, given to a grieving family.
To learn more, visit: www.freejamesfoley.org.
We express our deepest sympathy to the loved ones of James Foley as they navigate this difficult time, while remembering all the great moments of his life, some of which we, who don’t even know him, have been honored to hear about through various media stories.