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The Extraordinary Life of Abdul-Rahman Kassig

Abdul-Rahman Kassig gained international recognition for his daring aid work in Syria and his death at the hands of ISIS. But after interviewing close friends and family for a series of reflections in the March issue of IM, I learned that this complex young man—raised “Peter” in Indianapolis—was deeply admired well before he left to find his calling in a dangerous foreign land.

 

Almost from the very beginning, Peter Kassig ran.

“Peter walked at 9 months of age,” Ed Kassig once wrote of his son’s life. “He ran at 9 months and 2 days.”

At age 3, Peter ran on a track for the first time at a neighborhood meet at Eastwood Middle School in Indianapolis. He would go on to be a top distance runner at North Central High School.

God—or Allah, as Peter would call him years later—didn’t just grace this child with fast feet. He had a quick mind, too. And running at the mouth was another specialty; Peter thought, planned, and experienced feelings out loud. But people tended not to mind, because Peter was a skilled conversationalist: smart, witty, and modest, often to a fault. He questioned most everything, even, at times, his own self-worth.

Peter’s life had three constants: love, loyalty, and learning. Despite being a prolific talker, he knew when to hush and listen. His parents taught him to respect adults and address them with “mister” or “missus.” He said “Yes, please” and “No, sir” and wrote thank-you notes. He thrived on having role models, soaking up the wisdom of grandparents, whether his own or those of friends. As an adult, he often would lean in toward speakers, head slightly cocked, eyes locked, seeming to absorb whatever they had to say.

Shortly after the Kassigs adopted Peter as an infant, he was baptized at Epworth United Methodist on the northeast side of Indy, and he grew up in the church. As a middle-schooler, he once made an impromptu speech at a Christmas Eve service, expressing how much he loved the annual tradition. Judy Tucker, a Sunday-school teacher whose three children grew up in the church with Kassig, remembers being touched to hear a boy of that age express his feelings so tenderly.

A hallmark of Methodist theology is “practical divinity,” or putting faith and love into action. From an early age, Peter practiced that. One day in his Glendale neighborhood, when Peter was 7 years old, he went door-to-door on his street, asking for canned-food donations. He knew that people were hungry in Indianapolis and that his church routinely delivered items to a local food pantry. So he rolled out his little red wagon and filled it up. Peter followed the same simple formula throughout his life: See people in need. Help them.

Books helped shape the man Peter would become. Dad read Richard Scarry books as son searched for the colorful Lowly Worm and hidden Goldbug, each obscured among dozens of other scenes and characters illustrated on the same pages. Scarry’s books reward kids for examining the world closely. Peter liked his Grandpa Kassig to read Henry the Explorer, about a boy who discovers adventures while out on his own but always makes it home safely.

Kassig-familyBy age 4, Peter was already paying close attention to what made people tick and determining how to put that information to best use. He would ask his mother to read Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book at bedtime because it often made her fall asleep before him, buying him a few extra minutes before being tucked in for the night. By age 9, he was cunning enough to convince his “cat people” parents to let him have a dog—on Mother’s Day. Paula Kassig’s friends laughed that their cat-lady friend shared her holiday with a hound.

Peter was also inventive and imaginative. And doing things independently on his own terms, after much thought—that was always his way. He set out to write his own books as a first-grader. For each page, he drew a picture, often of a toucan, macaw, or dolphin. He would write the text phonetically and then present the book to his parents for them to read to him. When they struggled to make out his creative spelling, Peter declared, “You’re supposed to know how to read!”

He also grew frustrated whenever people couldn’t read him. And as he grew older, his frustration with himself grew, too. He had difficulty spelling out his own identity, figuring out his life’s purpose.

Peter was an expert at friendships. When people he was close to (and there are many) reflect on him, they often describe being in awe of how much he invested in making and keeping friends. If he argued with one of them, he always made sure to patch things up. Friends were like family to him and, he believed, deserved a lifetime commitment.

At North Central, Peter persistently persuaded friends to gather together nearly every Friday night, driving to buddies’ homes if necessary to coax them off their couches. He was diligent about staying in touch with close friends once they scattered to colleges and careers beyond Indy.

He was unselfish, generous, and fun, but he also sought out repeated reassurances that he was smart and people liked him. That needy side of Peter could drive his friends nuts.

Soon after Peter turned 18, in February 2006, he reached out to his family’s adoption attorney in order to get in touch with his birth mother, Rhonda Schwindt, and his two younger half-siblings, Jana and Sam. When Peter finally connected with them, they quickly made up for lost time. The Schwindts welcomed Peter into their home, introduced him to extended family and friends, and gave him a house key so he could visit whenever he wanted. He offered brotherly advice, assisted with homework, and took Jana and Sam out for all sorts of activities.

Later that year, after graduating from high school, Peter joined the 75th Army Ranger Regiment, an elite, highly trained combat force. Friends marveled at his maturity when he was home on leave. He stood tall, shoulders squared. He loved being part of the brotherhood, the camaraderie of shared effort and struggle that the military provides. He thought being a soldier would provide the identity and life purpose he sought.

Then came a three-month tour in Iraq. Afterward, he sought counseling from the military to help recover from the stress of his first combat experience. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that can cause unusual and severe shifts in mood, energy, and activity levels. He left the Army with an honorable medical discharge in 2007. The diagnosis aggravated and upset him; he wanted to remain a Ranger and didn’t believe he was bipolar or that his medical evaluation was fair or thorough.

In Peter’s view, it just wasn’t fair that he grew up in a stable, loving household, while other people in the world went without food and water, and saw death on a daily basis.

Yes, Peter could at times be impulsive or depressive, and he did have plenty of energy. But his friends didn’t observe any behavior that led them to believe he was bipolar. They use words like “lost” and “traumatized” to describe what they remember. Charlie Wiles, a member of Veterans for Peace who mentored Peter after the discharge, thinks he showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Regardless, the fact remained that Peter’s high hopes for military service were dashed, and, once again, he faced having to figure out what to do with his life.

Many of his friends were already in college, at least a year ahead of him and set on majors and careers. He decided to enroll at Hanover College in Southern Indiana and started in January 2007. He joined a fraternity and made new, close friends, but he still felt unsettled. After completing three semesters’ worth of credits, he left school, which rattled some of his more responsible friends, who advised against it.

Peter was like an anxious runner, raring to go but with no finish line. A wildcard. Friends and family were never certain where he might end up next. In 2010, he trained to become an EMT and then transferred to a hometown school, Butler University, where he impressed professors. But he never felt like he quite fit in. He was a bit older than a lot of the students, had seen war.

What direction now? Maybe settling down and having a family. Peter fell in love with a fellow Butler student, and they married quickly. The union was brief, and Peter took the failure hard.

He kept running. Kept searching. He moved into a house with some other Butler students, and they gathered most evenings around the backyard fire pit piled with walnut logs. Breathing in the nutty aroma and swigging longnecks, they kicked back and pontificated about girls, school, politics, and the Middle East. Other Butler kids regarded them as the really smart guys who partied a lot.

Peter inspired the same kind of loyalty and admiration in his new Butler friends as he had in companions he met earlier in life. He was a go-getter, ready to run his buddies off their straight-and-narrow paths. Once, that meant cruising around downtown Indianapolis at 4 a.m., windows down and music blaring. Another night, they joined him on a mission to his ex-wife’s apartment so he could steal back his American flag from her porch. One Monday evening, at Peter’s urging, they went bar-hopping until close to dawn despite having a week of classes ahead of them.

kassig-sera-ambulanceBut Peter wasn’t always clowning around. He was intrigued by international diplomacy and alternatives to war. High-school friends thought he returned from Iraq with a heavy burden and a desire to do something. In Peter’s view, it just wasn’t fair that he grew up in a stable, loving household while other people in the world went without food and water and saw death on a daily basis.

Peter started paying close attention to the bloodshed in Syria and was horrified that so many aid workers were being shut out, unable to cross the nation’s borders to treat the injured, many of them innocent civilians caught in crossfire.

He dashed off for Beirut during Butler’s spring break in March 2012 to see the Syrian refugee crisis for himself. Once he observed the dire need in the region, watched people dying firsthand, he made the decision to return and stay for good.

“I have tried to live my life in a way that displays what it is that I believe, but the truth is, much of my life I have only been searching for my calling, I had not yet found it,” Peter wrote in a letter to family, friends, and teachers back home. “Here, in this land, I have found my calling. I have lived a selfish life, I have run until I could not run anymore.”

“I do not know much, every day that I am here I have more questions and less answers,” he continued, “but what I do know is that I have a chance to do something here, to take a stand. To make a difference.”

In September 2012, Peter formed a nonprofit organization, Special Emergency Response and Assistance, to provide medical training, trauma care, and supplies for Syrians and their medical centers. He listened to anyone who would help him navigate the landscape with as little bureaucracy and red tape as possible. He had no time for mission statements and marketing plans. People were dying, and he wanted to get aid to them as fast as he could. A year later, Peter moved SERA’s headquarters from Lebanon to Gaziantep, Turkey, near the border of Syria to be closer to the fighting and its victims.

On October 3, 2013, Peter was riding in an ambulance filled with medical supplies and headed to Deir Ezzour, a divided, war-torn city under siege. Peter had provided aid there before. But this time, he never arrived.

ISIS operatives captured Peter at a Syrian checkpoint.sera-ambulance-smoke

While captive, Peter converted to Islam, changed his first name to Abdul-Rahman, and found comfort in prayer. The captors demanded that his parents stay quiet about the abduction. A year later, ISIS members released video footage showing the execution of Allan Henning, a British taxi driver who went to Syria to aid war victims. At the end, the killer grabbed Abdul-Rahman, showed him to the camera and said he would die next. Now, Ed and Paula Kassig could be public in their work to save their son, and Charlie Wiles, director of the Center for Interfaith Cooperation, introduced them to prominent Indianapolis-area Muslims and Syrians. “Every woman lined up to give Paula Kassig a hug,” says Wiles. “Each man said, ‘I feel obliged to do whatever I can, because Abdul-Rahman is doing the work I should be doing.’”

The Kassigs received a letter from Abdul-Rahman in early 2014, thanking them for raising and loving him so well, and reassuring them that if he died, “At least you and I can seek refuge and comfort in knowing that I went out as a result of trying to alleviate suffering and helping those in need.”

On November 16, after working with negotiators to secure his release, the Kassigs learned that ISIS had killed their son. In one of several services held in Central Indiana, a preeminent Syrian Sunni Muslim cleric, Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi, now in exile in Morocco, flew in to lead a memorial program in Fishers, honoring Abdul-Rahman and condemning ISIS, as he has via media all over the world.

Al-Yaqoubi called Abdul-Rahman a “hero,” highlighting how the young EMT instructed more than 100 Syrians in emergency medical procedures—providing a ripple effect of recovery that will run through generations to come.

“Everything that comes to us from God is a divine gift,” he said. “We know that Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig left this world, but for a better world. He left this world with good deeds, with great deeds indeed.”

 

 

See intimate, firsthand reflections on Kassig from the March issue of IM, as told by his close friends at home and abroad.

Photos courtesy SERA and Kassig family

 

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