Like I said in last week’s saint of the week post, I’ve chosen for the month of October to focus on journalists who have died either while documenting something or in retaliation to what they were reporting on. While these are not “saints” in the traditional sense, journalists who have died because of what they were documenting have essentially given up their lives for the sake of others. They felt so strongly about getting a story or pictures out that they were willing to sacrifice their lives so the story could be heard or the photo seen. I belive it is then a worthy exercise to remember and honor the lives of those journalists who have made that sacrifice. Today we’ll look at one of the most recent and most notable journalist deaths.
This week’s saint is James Foley.
Most of us probably had not heard of James Foley until the tragic video of his beheading had hit the news cycles. But his life story is much more than just the gruesome end the world witnessed. James was born in Evanston, Illinois on October 18 in 1973 the first of five children born to his parents, John and Diane Foley. The family would eventually move to Wolfeboro, New Hampshire where James would grow up and attend high school. James grew up a Catholic and graduated from the Jesuit university Marquette University in 1996 with a Bachelor’s degree in history. He would go on to earn his Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2003.
James began a career as a teacher in Arizona, Massachusetts, and in Chicago, Illinois for Teach For America (TFA) where he taught prison inmates. After working as a teacher, he decided to change careers and turned towards journalism. He would attend and graduate from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in 2008. Shortly after graduation, he began to help USAID development projects in Baghdad. James would help organize seminars and trainings to rebuild and restore civil services in Iraq. In 2010 he would apply to be an embedded journalist with the US military in Afghanistan. He ended up being embedded with troops in Iraq where is brother was also serving. Later in 2011 he would become a reporter for Stars and Stripes and was assigned to Afghanistan. After stepping down because he admitted to posessing marijuana in 2011 James began working for the GlobalPost and embedded himself with Libyan rebels fighting in the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi.
While in Libya James and some other fellow journalists were captured by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi. In the attack leading up to their capture, James’ friend and photographer Anton Hammerl was killed. James and his other journalist friends were beaten and would be imprisoned for 44 days. While in captivity, James relied on his Catholic faith to keep his spirits up. Talking about how he prayed with his fellow captives, James said, “I’d pray to stay strong. I’d pray to soften the hearts of our captors. I’d pray to God to lift the burdens we couldn’t handle. And I’d pray that our Moms would know we were OK.” After being released, James returned home and talked extensively about his reporting and capture in Libya. During this time, James would also help fund raise for the family of Anton Hammerl. James would eventually return to Libya and would document the scene of Muammar Gaddafi’s capture.
“I believe that frontline journalism is important. 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.”
In 2012 James returned to work for the GlobalPost and went to Syria to report on the civil war going on there. On November 22, 2012 James was captured along with his translator while leaving an internet cafe in Binesh, Syria. In December 2013, his captors demanded a ransom of 100 million euros from Foley’s family. The GlobalPost reportedly spent millions to try to locate and free James even hiring an international security firm to track his position. In July 2014 the United States launched a rescue mission to try and free James and other captives but the mission failed as they had all been moved by the time the US military arrived. While in captivity, James was subject to regular beatings, torture and even mock executions. James’ family had reportedly been planning to illegally pay an undisclosed amount for ransom when they received an email on August 12, 2014 from James’ captors explaining their issues with the US governments refusal to pay ransoms, negotiate prisoner exchanges and that they planned to begin avenging US bombings in the Middle East by killing their son James. On August 19, 2014 a video was uploaded to YouTube by the ISIS group entitled “A Message to America.” The video begins with news footage of President Obama announcing the US airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, it then cuts to a video of Foley kneeling in the desert reading a prepared statement next to a masked man dressed in black. After Foley reads his statement, the man begins condemning the US airstrikes and threatens that any further aggression will, “result in the bloodshed of your people.” The video then reveals the beheaded corpse of James Foley.
Shortly after the video was released, the family posted on Facebook the last “letter” they received from James. The letter was actually a memorized letter that James recited to a fellow captured journalist Daniel Rye Ottosen who was released by ISIS in June 2014. The letter is also posted at the family’s website, FreeJamesFoley.org.
“Dear Family and Friends,
I remember going to the Mall with Dad, a very long bike ride with Mom. I remember so many great family times that take me away from this prison. Dreams of family and friends take me away and happiness fills my heart.
I know you are thinking of me and praying for me. And I am so thankful. I feel you all especially when I pray. I pray for you to stay strong and to believe. I really feel I can touch you even in this darkness when I pray.
Eighteen of us have been held together in one cell, which has helped me. We have had each other to have endless long conversations about movies, trivia, sports. We have played games made up of scraps found in our cell…we have found ways to play checkers, Chess, and Risk… and have had tournaments of competition, spending some days preparing strategies for the next day’s game or lecture. The games and teaching each other have helped the time pass. They have been a huge help. We repeat stories and laugh to break the tension.
I have had weak and strong days. We are so grateful when anyone is freed; but of course, yearn for our own freedom. We try to encourage each other and share strength. We are being fed better now and daily. We have tea, occasional coffee. I have regained most of my weight lost last year.
I think a lot about my brothers and sister. I remember playing Werewolf in the dark with Michael and so many other adventures. I think of chasing Mattie and T around the kitchen counter. It makes me happy to think of them. If there is any money left in my bank account, I want it to go to Michael and Matthew. I am so proud of you, Michael and thankful to you for happy childhood memories and to you and Kristie for happy adult ones.
And big John, how I enjoyed visiting you and Cress in Germany. Thank you for welcoming me. I think a lot about RoRo and try to imagine what Jack is like. I hope he has RoRo’s personality!
And Mark… so proud of you too Bro. I think of you on the West coast and hope you are doing some snowboarding and camping, I especially remember us going to the Comedy Club in Boston together and our big hug after. The special moments keep me hopeful.
Katie, so very proud of you. You are the strongest and best of us all!! I think of you working so hard, helping people as a nurse. I am so glad we texted just before I was captured. I pray I can come to your wedding…. now I am sounding like Grammy!!
Grammy, please take your medicine, take walks and keep dancing. I plan to take you out to Margarita’s when I get home. Stay strong because I am going to need your help to reclaim my life.
A fellow reporter, David McKay Wilson from The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y.T would write about James and his faith that, “Foley was a devout Christian who, unlike most journalists I’ve known during my almost four decades in the field, was unapologetic about his heart for social justice and the inspiration he found for his beliefs in the New Testament.”
Today, October 17th would have been James’ 41st birthday. Tomorrow in his hometown they are having a day to celebrate his life. Services are being held at his home church, Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish, in Rochester, New Hampshire from 9:30 AM to 9 PM. A memorial service is being held at 10 AM and I would encourage you to join in prayer with his family and friends even through we can not be present with them.
More Information & References:
Wikipedia – James Foley (Journalist)
FreeJamesFoley.org – Free James Foley
CBC News – James Foley profile: A ‘committed and brave journalist’
ABC News – Remembering Slain Journalist James Foley
USA Today: James Foley: Beheading victim had deep faith
Religious News Service: Is James Foley a martyr? A brutal death sparks a faith-based debate
Christianpost.com – NH Home Church Remembers US Journalist James Foley for His Faith; He Prayed Regularly in Captivity