As American journalist Jim Foley entered his fifth month missing in Syria, his mother, Diane Foley, prepared for a panel event called ‘Silenced Voices: When Conflict Journalists Go Missing,’ to be held by the Free James Foley organization on May 3 in Boston. She spoke with Syria Deeply managing editor Karen Leigh about her fears, her belief in her son and what it’s like to be the parent of a conflict journalist.
Karen Leigh: Tell me what we don’t know about your son. How did he come to the Syria story?
Diane Foley: James has been in journalism now for about seven years. And he initially began some of his work in Afghanistan, and then went to Libya. He has become very interested in conflict journalism, particularly because he recognizes the incredible stress that normal citizens, women and children, go through when their country is at war. And he thinks it’s a very important story for the world to know. He’s become very passionate about doing this type of work, Karen. After a while he felt compelled that he’s seeing things in those countries that the world should know about.
KL: What’s it like to be the mother of a conflict reporter?
DF: As a mother this would not have been my choice, the type of journalism he’s doing. I would prefer he choose a safer line of work. It’s anxiety producing. James is aware of that, so always when he’s away, he calls or texts or emails every two days. He was very aware of the stress it puts on all of us, and he’s done very well about letting us know where he was going.
KL: When was the last time you heard from James? When did you find out he was missing?
DF: We heard from him in mid-November. My elderly aunt died and Jim was very close to her and called me to give condolences. Our daughter spoke with him the morning of November 22, they texted each other. He was on his way back to Turkey that day, and that’s when he was captured.
We found out when one of his colleagues, Clare Gillis, called us the following morning. Nicole Tung [a freelance photographer who contributes to Syria Deeply] and Clare [a freelance journalist who was captured with Foley when they were reporting in Libya] were both waiting for Jim at the Turkish border. They were waiting for the driver and translator, for him to return, so they could take the driver into Syria. When he did not return, they knew there was trouble. Clare called to let us know the morning after Thanksgiving. We knew it wasn’t good, because Jim always called us on holidays and he hadn’t called that entire day.
KL: Did you think it would be quick, like his capture in Libya? Or did you realize that Syria was a different animal and he might be there for a long time?
DF: The former, initially, to be honest. Jim was very fortunate in Libya, his capture was witnessed and he was sighted, and he came home in 44 days. Even though it was very difficult, he came home and endured it well. We were in shock and very upset that it had happened [again in Syria]. We continue to be hopeful but it’s difficult in that it has been much longer, and that’s very troubling for us as a family – we just haven’t seen or heard from him for a long time.
Jim found the Syrians very hospitable, very good people. As a family, we continue to make a humanitarian plea to anyone in Syria who may have seen our son James or any other Western journalist. There are a lot of journalists, a lot of good people who are trying to help us find James and Austin Tice [an American freelancer who has been missing in Syria since August]. The problem is that in spite of all these good efforts we really have no trace of Jim at all.
KL: Do you worry about his physical and emotional states?
DF: I do, but Jim is a very strong, resilient young man. He has strong faith in the goodness of people. He’s physically strong and emotionally strong. He’s an innocent and objective journalist. He was there merely to cover the story so people in the world could know the suffering on both sides of the conflict. On May 3, which the United Nations has designated World Freedom of the Press Day, we’re going to have an event in Boston called Silenced Voices: When Conflict Journalists Go Missing. David Rohde [who was kidnapped in Afghanistan while reporting for The New York Times] and Roxana Saberi [a freelancer who was held in prison in Iran in 2009] are participating. They’re going to be having a discussion about the risk for conflict journalists, because it’s a very high-risk occupation.
KL: Were there any stories James was working on about which he was particularly passionate?
DF: He had spent a lot of time in an Aleppo hospital. He had seen the suffering of young children, innocent people being hurt. But he also covered stories of people helping each other in the midst of conflict. It was exhilarating for him to work in Libya, in Benghazi, to be witness to what was happening in that country. He’s quite passionate about all the stories that he writes. Jim’s a very good listener, he listens to people’s stories.
KL: It has to be harder the more time goes by.
DF: The longer this goes on, it truly becomes harder. It’s really becoming harder, I’m not going to deny that. So I need to stay hopeful and strong and realize that he is doing that, too. I really do appeal to anyone who might be in Syria or know anyone who could help us find him. He has a tattoo on his left shoulder that says ‘Foley,’ which helps to identify him.
Jim is 39. He was home in October and we celebrated his birthday. I’m a nurse practitioner, and my husband is a physician. We live in New Hampshire. It’s a very rural environment. He grew up in Wolfboro, right on Lake Winnipisaukee.
This is Jim’s second career. Before journalism he was a teacher. He was in Teach for America, in the inner city in Phoenix and later in Chicago, where he worked in a program at Cook County jail helping men who wanted to earn their GED. He came into journalism after graduating from Northwestern University, Medill [School of Journalism]. So this has been a new career for him.