Guest Column: What I learned from James Foley

Sean Lavery

When I was a freshman reporter for The Daily Northwestern, a Medill alum by the name of James Foley was detained in Libya while covering the uprising. I was assigned to write about it for The Daily, given a press release and a phone number for his parents. They hadn’t heard a word from him in weeks.

I had no idea what I was doing. At the time I wasn’t even intent on studying journalism. Reporting student government meetings was overwhelming enough, but calling distressed parents under unimaginable circumstances was nerve-wracking. I turned to my editor for guidance.

“What do I do? What do I even say?”

I took a look at his work. I admired the image he portrayed in one of his final messages: rockets disrupting the sunset and a harmonious call to prayer in the seaside city of Brega, Libya, where he had been captured. Peace disrupted, but only momentarily. And it had that quality I would find in his other reports. Raw and descriptive, with only a touch of romanticism in the kicker. Perhaps to make all the horrors he documented digestible. Perhaps to unearth the beauty lurking behind all the human failure.

And then I got to know Jim before ever meeting him. He had five siblings. He was once a teacher in low income schools. His parents were remarkably strong. He was a faithful man, raised Catholic — the kind tirelessly attracted to social justice. Thousands of words on the page, phone calls to family, conversations with his professors, hours spent tied to his clips from the front line. I was enamored. In the month or so that passed between when the first story was published and when he touched down in Boston, I had built up an image in my mind so saint-like I thought the only possible outcome would be deflation. But Jim soared above even my idealistic expectations.

The phone rang, late at night in the newsroom. Fresh from one of Gaddafi’s prisons and still en route to his family’s home, he made time for a student reporter whom he had never met. He answered my banal questions, (How are you doing?) but had even more questions for me. He wondered how his family was coping during those long stretches without contact, certain they had been putting on a brave face as they celebrated his return home. We talked until he needed to go. Not an interview, really, but a conversation.

When we met on campus the following week he was insistent that I continue writing. It was probably just a polite gesture, but it settled the debate over whether I would switch to the journalism school the following year. We kept in touch. I started classes. Jim went back to Libya. When I needed a source or a story idea for unpublished class work he was a ready and eager companion. He taught me — explicitly and by example — to report all sides objectively, but give special attention to the oppressed. I would stumble over my questions, take pauses to rephrase, take whole minutes to come up with another thing to ask, but he graciously walked me through it. He often spoke about the families who would bring him into their homes for meals; that knack for making friends proved to be an invaluable asset in places where access was near impossible. I joked that I would shadow him for my journalism residency and then–

What do I do? What do I even say?

It is far beyond my expertise to advocate a military solution for the complex scenario that ensnares whole populations in countries mired in civil war. Instead, we can start to honor Jim by continuing to shine a light on the problems that drove his mission and to tell the stories of ordinary Syrian people that would otherwise go untold.

The UN Refugee Agency has counted nearly 3 million refugees and USAID lists 6.4 million internally displaced people since the beginning of the conflict. The despotic dictator Bashar al-Assad has gassed innocents and killed thousands of people in his struggle to maintain power, which created the conditions for extremists to co-opt a civil uprising and led to a strong and emboldened ISIS. The bloodshed has left 5 million children facing violence and hunger, and 3 million missing an education.

Shortly before his capture, Jim recognized a street-level humanitarian need and took action. He helped crowdfund enough money to buy an ambulance for the citizens of Aleppo, Syria, who lacked even the basic capability to aid their wounded. To stay informed of the crisis, to support the people facing an uncertain and violent future, and to pressure governments and institutions to provide the needed resources to stem the humanitarian fallout from the conflict, honors Jim’s commitment.

Jim’s friends and family have also set up a scholarship at his alma mater, Marquette University. Donations can be made here. The scholarship and accompanying mentorship program serves to support a student who would not otherwise have the opportunity and is a fitting tribute to a man who went out of his way to impart his knowledge to a young group of admirers.

Every year, Northwestern awards journalists with the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism, for work that “best displayed moral, ethical or physical courage in the pursuit of a story or series of stories.” Josh Meyer at Medill’s National Security Zone has suggested the award be renamed for James Foley, an idea that has significant merit as long as it is managed in consultation with Jim’s family and friends. At the very least Jim must be considered for the medal, with the $5,000 prize contributed toward a family supported initiative.

I will continue to write. And if the time comes where I am able bring justice to the light, it will be his words, his actions, and his spirit that will have inspired me to do so. His legacy serves as an example of grace, dignity and honor that we should aspire to fulfill in our lifetimes. And the impact of his courage stands only to unearth the beauty of humanity lurking underneath those violent disruptions that try, but fail, to obscure it.

Sean Lavery is a Medill graduate and can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a letter to the editor to [email protected].