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Remembering Peter Kassig: ‘His empathy and warmth were obvious’

Kassig making a food delivery to refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, May 2013 (Courtesy of the family photo)
Kassig making a food delivery to refugees in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, May 2013 (Courtesy of the family photo)

I met Peter in Beirut in May, 2012. He was a university student visiting Lebanon trying to find a project to help Syrian refugees. He’d left the Army and was looking for a way to nonviolently help people in the region, so I put him in touch with Syrian refugee groups in north Lebanon, where he began working as a volunteer nurse and medic in the government hospital in Tripoli, treating injured Syrian refugees who were then pouring across the border.

Despite not speaking Arabic and hardly knowing a thing about the region, his empathy and warmth were so obvious that even the most conservative and anti American Syrian refugees came to adore him. He’d live for days in the hospital, pulling long shifts strictly as a volunteer, and was even jokingly nicknamed Abu Homsi by his colleagues and patients because they just couldn’t believe this former American soldier was working for free simply to help people. For about eight months he lived in my apartment in-between trips to Tripoli, Turkey and eventually Syria.

His presence drew some media attention and eventually Arwa Damon of CNN profiled him and his work, which led to a flood of people asking how they could help support his efforts. As a result, as soon as he graduated from Butler University that summer, he began to set up an organization to funnel these offers of donations to the refugees. He relocated to southern Turkey where it was easier to get supplies into the northern parts of Syria.

Eventually, he set up a program with the opposition local coordinating committee in Deir el Zour, Syria, and worked for a couple of weeks in their hospital under constant government bombardment. In one well reported incident, he even helped operate on the wounded commander of the al Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front from the area, who upon finding that Peter was being held by the Islamic State immediately issued a statement demanding his release, because it was clear he had only come to Syria to serve Syrians without any sort of political agenda.

Peter was kidnapped in early October 2013 while he was attempting to bring a large convoy of aid that he had purchased with donations from all over America to that hospital in Deir el Zour. He’d insisted on leading the convoy himself – despite clear indications that eastern Syria was increasingly unsafe for westerners and Syrians alike – out of fears that the supplies might not make it to the people of Deir el Zour. They were stopped by the Islamic State at a checkpoint in Raqqa and Peter was then taken captive.

His murder is a senseless crime against someone who was willing to risk his life alongside people in a foreign land, without being paid or even congratulated, simply because he couldn’t bear to not use his skills as a medic to help them. His murder, as much as it devastates his family and friends, is just as big a loss to the people of Syria and Lebanon, and the world. Selfless compassion and courage exist in people everywhere, but I’ve met few people who had as much of both as Peter Kassig. My heart is broken but even his death won’t change the fact that the world is full of people willing to risk their lives to help others. It’s just a crime that that willingness is why Peter was murdered.

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