Abdul-Rahman Kassig: A Humanitarian Remembered
Before he fell hostage to ISIS, converted to Islam, became an international cause, and, ultimately, sacrificed his life to help Syrians in need, Abdul-Rahman Kassig was, to friends in Indiana and abroad, just Peter.
The world learned about Abdul-Rahman Kassig on October 3, 2014, when he appeared in a hostage video released by the Middle East militant group ISIS. In time, the tale of an expat from Indianapolis took shape—a man many knew simply as Peter. Adopted as an infant in 1988, Peter Kassig joined the elite 75th Army Ranger Regiment after high school. A tour in Iraq left him with combat-related stress; he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and left the Army with an honorable medical discharge in 2007.
Afterward, Kassig briefly attended Hanover College, then embarked on an ill-fated marriage. In 2010, he received EMT certification and came home to study at Butler University. He took a trip to Beirut in 2012 to see the Syrian refugee crisis and decided to move there permanently, forming a nonprofit to provide medical training and aid.
On October 1, 2013, Kassig headed for Deir Ezzor, Syria, in an ambulance. ISIS captured Kassig and held him hostage. While captive, he converted to Islam and changed his name to Abdul-Rahman. On November 16, 2014, after working with negotiators to secure his release, Kassig’s parents learned that ISIS had executed their son.
The following recollections, from friends at home and abroad, paint an intimate portrait of the remarkable young man they knew before the world took notice.
After meeting as sophomores at North Central High School in 2003, Timpson and Kassig were nearly inseparable. Now a Ball State University graduate and server at St. Elmo Steak House, Timpson recalls a young man who, for all his fun-loving ways, could not have been a more steadfast person.
“In 2005, I had my mom’s Jeep Wrangler. Pete and I had taken the doors off, and the top was down because it was summer. I was driving, and he was crouched in the back seat with a cowboy hat on, pinned up on one side to look like he was from the outback or Jurassic Park. Pete had borrowed my dad’s camera tripod and was pointing it at people passing us in cars, pretending he was on safari. They glared at him, and I sped away as we cracked up. We were acting like we were in grade school, instead of almost-seniors, but it was so fun.
Pete loved his friends, and we loved being around him. He was never one to get overly upset. He always gave credit when credit was due. At the end of the day, no matter what was going on, Pete was the one and only person I can confidently say would figure out how to be there for you no matter what. I can still remember me, Pete, and six other close friends playing Xbox until 7 o’clock one morning. Pete was good at video games.
He knew he wanted to be an Army Ranger. That was his whole goal and focus. When he came home after basic, he carried himself really, really well. He was more stern, more mature, proud. He was the same ol’ Peter, but he stood straighter and taller.
Still, Pete was a wild card. We would all get together and have these conversations about who would get married first, who would be most financially successful, and I could never pinpoint exactly what he would do. I think that’s reflected by his life.
For example, his marriage was a surprise. We all grew up thinking you meet someone, date for a long time, move in with each other. That’s the typical way. But with him, it was one day: ‘We are engaged.’ Then, they were married. He was passionate about her and wanted it to work, and he put a lot of energy into it. He was devastated when it didn’t.
Later, I hear him say, ‘I’m going to help the Syrians.’ Next thing I know, he’s on a plane. I don’t know how he did it. Pete never had a lot of money. But he knew how to make connections.
As for religion, Pete was really into angels. He had angel tattoos. He was closer to God than most of us. He basically believed that religion is a way to do right by other people.”
The first time Wood saw Kassig was in a Beirut bar in 2012. He thought Kassig was a rube—some naive American fresh off the boat after deciding to live in the “exotic” Middle East. Kassig spoke quickly, loudly, excitedly, and was wearing an Army Rangers T-shirt. Wood brushed by Kassig and advised him, “You can’t wear that here,” only with saltier words. To Wood’s surprise, Kassig came running after, met his stride, and started talking.
It didn’t take long for Wood to realize Kassig wasn’t an idiot. Kassig spent many a night at Wood’s apartment, gathering with journalists and aid workers to discuss the world, and often sleeping on an old, lumpy couch.
“We had similar values and were both committed to the Middle East. I was trying to tell the stories of the region so they would be relatable to the West. He was trying to get help for people who needed help and was very sincere in what he was doing. He didn’t care if they knew the name of his organization. He just wanted to give things to people. His own bank account often was dry.
My first impression was, How is this guy going to survive? He was very white and covered in tattoos, which make you stand out. He went to Bourj el-Barajneh, a refugee camp with some 30,000 people, and I just couldn’t imagine how he would manage it. He didn’t know any Arabic or much about anything there. When I went down to see him, I remember my mouth hanging open just watching him. He was high-fiving the kids, talking to people the best he could, just blending in. His personality really worked for him. Everywhere, he ‘found’ people, and once they knew him, they were eager to help him out. He was so young and energetic. He knew so little about what he was doing when he got here, but he was relentless in learning all he could, all the time.
Pete had a lot of friends, a whole think tank of friends. We’d stay up all night talking. Peter was always bouncing ideas off of one of us. He could not not talk about his work, but sometimes we would just have to say, ‘Shut the hell up.’ He was often so focused on what he was doing or talking about that he wouldn’t pick up on pranks we were pulling on him. He was always looking for his sunglasses, asking if he’d left them at our apartment or where he had put them. One time I had the glasses hanging off my shirt for an hour, and he never noticed.
The last time we talked was on September 27, 2013, when I was in Beirut and Peter was in Turkey. I was on my laptop on Skype, and we were enjoying a couple drinks, chilling and kidding around. Peter was drinking some kind of nuclear-green crap and griping about Turkish food. Just mentioning Turkish pizza could make him go into a rage.
I was making plans to see him in a couple of weeks. Pete was living in Gaziantep [in Turkey, near the border] so he could make regular trips inside Syria. He was going again to Deir Ezzor [a city in northeast Syria where control is split between ISIS and government forces]. It’s hard to say any place in Syria is the worst because everywhere is terrible, but Deir Ezzor is especially dangerous because of the Bridge of Death [which spans the Euphrates River, provides the only way in and out of the city, and is frequently targeted by snipers]. We ended that last call pretty much like we ended every call, saying something like, ‘Later, dude, talk to you soon. Keep your head down.’ We found out that Peter had been taken by ISIS a few days later and didn’t speak to him again.
Here’s one kid, one white boy who gets killed. Syrians get killed every day. But I hope he’s left a mark on how to do humanitarian work. He saw gaps in the system and tried to fill them in the hardest-hit area in the world. He was always looking for the next best thing to do. And he just did it.”
Kassig attended Eastwood Middle School and North Central High School. He spent evenings and weekends at the Glendale home of schoolmate Zoeller, working out in the garage gym or hanging around a backyard bonfire. Later, as a young adult, Kassig slept on the Zoeller family’s couch for a week after he and his wife split up.
A year ahead of Kassig in school, Zoeller and Boeglin kept Kassig in his place in the pecking order: He was always forced to sit in the backseat of whatever vehicle Zoeller or Boeglin was driving, like a little brother.
Zoeller is now an actor in Los Angeles, and Boeglin is a lawyer in Maryland. The two stayed in touch with Kassig until he was kidnapped, and they recently reunited to reminisce about him. A condensed version of their joint interview appears here.
“We were in seventh grade and Pete was in sixth when we met. He had these thick glasses that made his eyes look really big.
Pete went on to become a top runner at North Central. He was dedicated, but it wasn’t because he wanted to be Peter Kassig: Cross Country State Champ. He wasn’t super-motivated by blue ribbons. More than he liked winning, he loved to be part of a team, loved the camaraderie of a shared effort and a shared struggle.
Pete had instant karma. Once, he tried sneaking a little soda into his McDonald’s water cup and got caught. Another time, while driving in the neighborhood, he stuck his head out the window to tease some friends. His truck rolled into a snowy ditch, and he had to ask the same kids to help him push the truck out. Once they finished laughing at him, they were happy to do it.
People did not realize how smart Pete was. He was a good student when he wanted to be, but his grades weren’t commensurate with his intellect, because he didn’t care. A lot of school is BS, right? He had a hard time with ambiguity. He had a hard time sitting still. Pete would read Great Expectations, be moved by it, and talk to you about it, but not because he had to study it for a class.
He was so much more invested in relationships with people than anything else in his life. When he bought dinner, he would always be the last person to take a plate. He was always the last to eat.
He could be a pain in the ass, because he’d get so down on himself. He needed reassurance. You are really smart. People do like you. He was overly apologetic. But he did not have anything to prove to anyone but himself. So many people believed in him long before he did. He spent a lot of his early life convincing himself that he did have the intelligence, work ethic, guts, strength of conviction, and courage to go do something great. He did not come to that conclusion lightly, and he came to it late.
In 2011, he sent us a news article that explained how aid workers would not be allowed inside [Syria] to assist injured or gassed civilians. They would be left to suffer. He refused to swallow that. The thought of it was too much for him to take. He wanted so badly to be a part of making the world a better place—whether that meant loving someone, starting a family, or starting a project that was going to help people.
Strangers may have looked at him as this really passionate person who was so intense—and maybe foolhardy—who went over there with lofty ideals that fell flat. But he knew exactly what he was doing every step of the way. He knew the calculations and the gravity of the situation. As a former soldier, he understood conflict and war, and that this was never going to be a peaceful world. But the way in which you go about doing it matters, and morality is important, regardless of who sees it.
He knew he might die, but Pete did not go over there to be a martyr. There was no element of self-promotion. He didn’t necessarily want to be the person who did it. He just wanted to have it done.
In the Middle East, he found that sense of good in works and within people. Recognizing how secure Pete was in what he was doing, people clamored to get on board and help his dreams come true. He attracted a lot of talented people to support his nonprofit, Special Emergency Response and Assistance. We were sounding boards, but he didn’t need our help then. He was so strong. It’s hard to articulate how strong. He was so self-sufficient.
The most comforting thing for us now is that he finally found that confident place within himself.”
Kassig and Dages both grew up in Indianapolis, but they met at Hanover College in 2006. After Kassig enrolled partway through the academic year, Dages’s fraternity, Lambda Chi Alpha, invited the newcomer to join. As a veteran, Kassig stood out on the small Southern Indiana campus, a popular figure among students from all backgrounds.
Dages was a few years older than Kassig, and he took Kassig under his wing. Now an attorney in Louisville, Dages, 29, says he is more tender and open with his feelings today, thanks to Kassig.
“Pete just drew people to him. He was articulate, with a loud, baritone voice. His laugh was loud, too. He shared himself.
This guy never cared about clothes. I remember, he once came back to his room [at the fraternity] and put almost all his clothes in the trash and donated the rest on a whim. Other times, he would just borrow people’s clothes in the house without asking, because in his mind that’s the way life was. He would give you the shirt off his back anytime.
Pete was intense. He would get worked up, maybe pace a little bit, say, ‘I can’t believe this!’ and then talk himself through it. He wore his thoughts and emotions on his sleeve. That was just how he processed and received information. I don’t recall him being a party-liner. He cared about broader political issues, but people-to-people connections were always the most important.
One Christmas, when we were home in Indianapolis from Hanover, Pete said, ‘Hey, man, I raised some money and bought some gifts. Let’s go give them out in some poor neighborhoods.’ He and my stepbrother delivered gifts to several families from the back of his old pickup truck. To me, that represented his political and social views.
Peter was chasing down life. He moved at a different pace, 50 times faster than the rest of us. Like the time Pete and a friend were driving back to Hanover in September 2008, when Hurricane Ike’s winds and rains were raging. They saw a tree crash into a house, so they stopped and checked to make sure the people inside were okay, and Pete was pumped up. He thrived in that scenario—and later went out and took a run in the storm.”
Dages graduated from Hanover in 2008 and the two still talked regularly, but Dages worried about Kassig, especially when he left Hanover without finishing a degree. Kassig enrolled at Butler but wasn’t finding his niche. Before long, the unsettled young man had left for Beirut on spring break.
“It took patience to be friends with Peter. He was always willing to listen to me, and he would absorb what I said, but he made his own decisions. Upon reflection, I was just thinking about what life should be for him based on my own life. He didn’t know what he wanted until he landed on it and did it. Pete had been bouncing around a lot, but the Middle East is finally where he felt his calling. He knew what to do in a war zone, facing trauma. That pace just suited him. He knew how to deal with chaotic situations.
It hurt him when people were hurting. He lived by the notion that if he could do something to fix the world, he ought to keep trying to do it. He understood his limitations, but Pete was going to do everything he could do in spite of what he was up against, including take the risks he did in the Middle East. It goes back to those Christmas gifts: Helping 15 Indianapolis families didn’t make a dent in that neighborhood, but it helped some people—more people than if he had done nothing.
If Pete had been able to live out his vision, SERA might have gone to work in other war-torn areas where civilians were ignored and desperate. Peter had written about how war would never end, but ‘Wherever it is, we’ll be there.’
He also would have been there for us. He had an unyielding loyalty to those he considered family, and his close friends were family, and he never let us forget it. The guys in my family aren’t the type to say ‘I love you’ to one another, normally. Peter said ‘I love you’ to me on the phone when I was in law school, and it took me off guard. I was silent a couple seconds and then returned the phrase, feeling awkward. It struck me that he was such a guy’s guy, to be so emotionally aware. I reflected on that and thought, ‘This makes sense. Why not tell people you care about them?’
Sometimes it might be a couple weeks, a month, or months before we’d touch base again. We were busy starting careers. But we’d pick right back up, and he’d say it—‘I love you, brother’ —and then I also started to say ‘I love you.’ Now, when I interact with people, I say how I feel about them. I wouldn’t have shared those feelings, those ‘I love yous,’ if Peter had not been a vital person in my life.”
As an Army reservist, Wiles trained to be a medic for the first Iraq War, but the conflict ended before he saw combat. He joined Veterans for Peace and traveled to the Middle East in 2008, where he interviewed refugees in Amman, Jordan, and Damascus, Syria, to learn about their war experiences.
Today, Wiles is executive director of the Indianapolis-based Center for Interfaith Cooperation, which partners with people in the community seeking and teaching diplomatic and peaceful solutions to world problems, including Butler professors, who introduced him to Kassig in 2011.
“They saw that Peter was struggling. He displayed the classic symptoms of PTSD, and they knew I was a member of Veterans for Peace. It was my understanding—although I wasn’t with Peter personally when he went through some of these trials—that he started to drink heavily, and I think he struggled with his marriage and found it difficult to be in social situations.
He did talk to me and some other members of Veterans for Peace about the difficulty he was having trying to adjust to being on campus after the experience he had in Iraq, and trying to identify and relate to some of his fellow students. I introduced him to some combat vets who helped console him. He finally had people he could confide in, those who knew the hell of war.
But I think what truly helped make him feel much better was going to the Middle East and starting to think about his next serial obsession, his next pursuit: helping the Syrian people. He asked me for advice on setting up a nonprofit, and I tried to suggest organizations doing good work that he could join, or people in the Middle East he could meet. But once Peter had his mind made up, he was going to do something. And he just did it—feet first, head first. Trying to get him to slow down and consider a different way wasn’t going to work.
He wouldn’t be deterred by the odds being so enormously stacked against him. He was going to go over there, and he was going to do some good. He got gratification from helping one child, or helping one family, or providing bandages to a remote clinic. He wanted to find a desperate situation and provide a glimmer of hope.”
ISIS initially instructed Kassig’s parents to stay quiet. A year later, the captors released video footage of an executioner beheading a hostage. At the end of the video, the killer grabbed Kassig, showed him to the camera, and said he would die next. With the release of the footage, Ed and Paula Kassig could be public in their work to save their son, and Wiles introduced them to Indianapolis-area Muslims and Syrians.
“Peter makes us all to this day come together to show solidarity because of what he and his family had to endure, and it created a new conversation. For one thing, it brought the Syrian community [in Indianapolis] together, Muslims and Christians, which had been very divided over the civil war.
It also brought Muslims together in solidarity. Like most faiths, there is a broad diversity of opinion in the community. Yet Peter’s passing made Muslims want to publicly remember him and show the compassion of their faith. It was an opportunity for Muslims in Indianapolis, and Muslims in general, to stand up and say, ‘We do want to speak against all these evils perpetrated in our name. What ISIS is doing is barbaric and an antithesis of the Muslim faith we grew up with.’”
Right before spring break in 2012, Kassig told McEvoy-Levy he planned to go on a hike. Once classes resumed, however, she learned that his “hike” had turned into a flight to Beirut. In Lebanon, Kassig observed firsthand a teeming refugee settlement, watching as more fleeing Syrians crowded in daily.
Kassig returned to Butler, finished his classes, and worked to raise money and awareness about the Syrian crisis. He headed back to Beirut less than two months later and stayed there.
“A good student, Peter cared about the class I was teaching—Understanding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. He’d been to war, and then he’d come back to an academic environment, where he was learning about alternatives to war: diplomacy, negotiation, humanitarianism, aid work. He hadn’t thought about conflict in this way, and these new ideas lit a fire under him.
Some students later said they were intimidated by his passion and knowledge. He sat at the back of my classroom and spoke up clearly. He was intense and often spoke with emotion. He felt the issues more personally. He came across as what he was: a former Army Ranger. He never put himself in the spotlight though, just the issues and events.
He was curious—curious about how a theory would hold up, or the history of a region, bringing up examples from his on-the-ground experience after three weeks in the refugee camp [in Lebanon].
In my class, we talk a lot about political perspectives. Peter wasn’t going to be deterred by politics in Lebanon or the refugee camp. He seemed to be idealistic, and some would say naive, in that sense.
That changed after he moved to Lebanon. I remember Peter telling me, ‘That stuff you’ve been talking about here is so true. There’s a lot of politics involved. It’s very complicated.’ So, he was wiser when he went back the second time.
I encouraged him to stay in school and do further study before heading out to the field. I warned him to always use caution and pointed out that there are existing humanitarian organizations and institutions already in Syria. Don’t reinvent the wheel. He heard that from a lot of people.
Whatever was driving him had to be done quickly. He knew he had to get the aid out immediately. People are suffering now. People are dying now, and the established organizations are slow and inefficient. Peter wanted to help as quickly as he could, save all the lives he could. Now with hindsight, it seems he must have had a prescient understanding that life was short.”
In August 2013, McEvoy-Levy called Kassig on Skype after not talking with him for several months.
“He was so happy. He said, ‘Hey, Professor! I’m doing aid work now.’ He was very excited. He was in the right place.
He didn’t give me information on exactly what he was doing, but he said, ‘There’s a 60 percent chance I won’t get out of this.’ We sort of laughed it off. I wasn’t sure whether to take him seriously. I did not realize he was putting himself in the level of danger he was.
Before we could talk further, we were cut off Skype. I sent him an instant message, saying, ‘Please take care. You can do so much more good work with a long life.’
I never heard back from him. That was the last conversation we had. He was taken less than two months later.
He put his life on the line to serve and help others. He knew he had certain skills having been a soldier. He knew in a way that he was attracted to war. There was this lure to the conflict zone. But he also knew he wanted not to go with a gun, but to go back with bread in his hand.
We are currently working to raise money for a new award at Butler in Peter’s name—the Kassig Humanitarian Award. This scholarship would help students learn about humanitarianism by interacting with professionals in the field. Peter is a model for the many people who have a desire for adventure and a desire to help others. If we pay attention to soldiers going to war, we should also pay attention to those people going to build peace.”
Downey, 25, had just moved from Cairo to Beirut in September 2012 and was settling into the apartment he shared with fellow journalist Josh Wood. Away on assignment, Wood told Downey that Kassig was soon coming by because he was between apartments and would be staying with them for awhile.
“Pete greeted me at the door with that big smile and strong handshake. The next day, he brought me a sandwich. I had just met the guy, hardly knew him, and here he was thinking of me. It struck me as a kind, simple gesture.
A month later, I borrowed Peter’s flak jacket to go on assignment. When I got back, I asked him if I could buy it from him. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Just give me a hundred bucks for walking-around money.” Most flak jackets cost hundreds of dollars. He always made sure friends had what they needed.
Pete was nearly always upbeat, but once we were at a friend’s place celebrating a birthday, and he was just so emotionally drained. Maybe it was the sharp contrast with the happiness of a birthday and the tragedies he’d been seeing. Anyway, I offered him some water and asked him if he wanted to talk or if I should just give him space. He lay quietly on the bed, burying his face in the pillow.
We were all at a bar together when I had just moved in, and Josh and Pete both got a call, tipping them off to some security raids going on near Pete’s old apartment. Pete couldn’t reach his neighbors to let them know, so he figured he’d better go find and warn them. He got in a taxi, and Josh jumped in after him. I was getting up to go, too, and Josh said, “Mike, stay. It’s dangerous.” I said, “What the hell, Josh?” But before I could say anything else, they had sped away. Josh and Pete came back to the apartment later, and I wasn’t really mad, but I sort of complained about how they had totally just left me at the bar. Pete started laughing. “Josh totally, totally benched you, dude,” he said. “But I’m sorry. We were in such a rush, but we shouldn’t have left you behind.”
That same bar—Torino Express—was Pete’s go-to place. He’d beg us, “Come on out for a drink, one drink! Dude! Life is short.” We’d say, “All right,” and then I don’t know how many drinks we’d have. Sometimes there was a DJ playing old music from the ’70s, ’60s, whatever. Those were absolutely some of the best times.
It was a Friday when a bunch of us found out he’d been killed, and we took off that evening for Torino and had shots of whiskey [Kassig’s favorite] and joked with the bartender, asking him if Pete had left an open tab. Pete was always, always forgetting to pay his tab.
We kept expecting Pete to walk through that door.”
It didn’t take long for Anderson, a journalist, to notice Kassig. Living in Beirut in 2012, she was part of a circle of journalists and relief workers; Kassig’s optimism offered a refreshing contrast to the mostly male group’s constant cynicism.
The 29-year-old Anderson had experience with the kind of ordeal Kassig would later endure: In 1985, before she was born, her father, Terry Anderson, an Associated Press bureau chief, was kidnapped in Lebanon.
“Pete was in high demand, and he didn’t have time for everyone. We usually hung out in a group. I begged him, ‘Pete, we need to hang out!
When are we just going to hang out?’ At one point, he tried to plant one on me, but I said, ‘It’s not happening, dude,’ and then we became really good friends.
We finally had a chance, just the two of us, to drive around late one night and talk. He always wanted to feel like he wasn’t alone, and we spoke about that. We were both deeply lonely people. We both said we felt the need to be always protected and loved. It’s like each of us had a bottomless need for love that we could never fill.
Adrenaline addiction was something we shared as well. Pete told me he just wasn’t happy where he was [in Indiana]. He didn’t know himself, couldn’t be himself. He wanted to go out and live life.
He was so sweet. He had a great outlook, never lost that belief in the goodness of people. Yet, he could get traumatized. One night he was really quiet, not himself, and he said something like, ‘I held a child’s arm in my hand and tried to put it back on. It was too late.’ He was lost in the moment. But that was out of character for him. Most of the time, it was like, ‘We’re going to change the world. This is what we’re going to do. We can make a difference.’
When we heard Pete was moving [to Turkey], I decided to have a party to say goodbye. My mother has this big house just outside of Beirut, but it’s hard to find, and there’s a 90 percent chance people will get lost going there, so we all agreed to meet up at the same time to follow one another in cars or cabs. But Pete didn’t show.
He finally did make it to the house, though—late to his own party. He was so apologetic. And of course, we all forgave him. People came from all of Pete’s different circles, and we all bonded. He brought people together, and he wanted all of his friends to like each other. It was really hot that night, and the house wasn’t air conditioned, so we huddled around this little space air conditioner, ate my homemade hummus, and drank Almaza [a Lebanese beer]. And we talked and laughed until really late.
Three days before he disappeared, Pete messaged me on Facebook. I’ll never forget that conversation.
‘Hey, girl! I miss you,’ he wrote.
‘Hey, dude! I miss you, too!’ I replied. ‘Where are you?’
‘I’m in Aleppo, we’re being shelled,’ he answered. And then, ‘Hey, I love ya, you know that, right?’
‘I love you, too, Pete,’ I responded. ‘Please be careful.’
He had talked to me about my dad being taken hostage, something along the lines of, Your dad knows what it’s like. I don’t know what I’d do in that situation. I don’t know what happened to him while he was captive, or what he went through. I do know that my father became a pretty devout Catholic when he was taken hostage. He had never been religious before, but he was in there with a Catholic, who brought him back to the fold. He needed to believe in something.
Maybe Pete faced a similar situation. He wanted to believe in something bigger than himself. A person of God talked to him about the right kind of Islam, not the wrong kind. It’s a beautiful religion at its core, and I think Pete would find the beauty and solace and peace in it.
Pete didn’t have any sort of malice in him. He was a pure soul. So innocent. You don’t meet a lot of people like that. I really, really, really regret that I never told him how I found him so courageous and true.”
In a government hospital in Tripoli, Lebanon, just outside Syria, Kassig treated the sick and wounded alongside the 26-year-old Agha, a Syrian. Agha became a right-hand man of sorts, translating, guiding, and taking videos for SERA.
When Kassig was killed by ISIS, Agha’s response to the Associated Press ran in media outlets worldwide. “If I could apologize to each American, one by one, I would,” Agha said. “Because Peter died in Syria, while he was helping the Syrian people.”
Wanted by the Syrian government, Agha presently lives in exile in Switzerland, in part thanks to Kassig, who paid for his plane ticket.
“The first time I meet him, I get a shock. He is so young. In my imagination, I think I would meet an old doctor, you know, one who has a lot of experience. Maybe he has a family even. But when I see a young man—maybe even younger than me! He says, ‘Hi, I’m Peter. I would like to help the Syrian people if you would help me.’
He looks very American. He has all these tattoos. Too many tattoos all over his body! An old man joked with him one time and said, ‘What happened? Did you need paper? You didn’t have paper so you have to write it on your body or something?’
I think to myself, ‘What is it with this young man, to leave everything in America and life there?’ It’s a dream for so many people to live there, and he leaves there to come here, to help us. I say to Peter, ‘I will lead you to a hospital, but are you understanding what you are trying to do?’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I blame my government because they don’t do too much. But I’m going to do something.’ So I introduce him at the hospital as ‘my American friend, who has come to help us as an assistant to a surgeon or with incisions.’
Peter would become like a member of the family with some of the patients. He became a person they could depend on. One time, there was a wounded person, and they gave him his lunch, and he said, ‘Where is Peter? Where is Peter?’
And I say, ‘Peter is working.’
‘Okay, I’m not starting until Peter comes,’ the man said.
He also had a fun side in his soul. When we play football [soccer], he skips around all the time, but we lose when we play together! And then he says, ‘You make a mistake this way. You make a mistake this way.’
‘Why is your mouth open so much now?’ I say. ‘Why don’t you become a coach?’
He all the time make fun of my English. Peter says once, ‘Did you just speak English or another language? I don’t recognize the language that you speak. Your English is like me speaking Chinese.’ I make jokes about him: ‘It’s better than your accent. Your accent sounds like a robot. I have a lot of American friends. But your accent? It’s like something from outer space.’
We used to call each other brothers.
When I was fasting at Ramadan, he didn’t eat or drink because he respected my religion. I remember when he came to my home sometimes and saw my father praying, he showed a lot of respect for that. When Peter became a Muslim, he chose the name Abdul-Rahman. I respect his decision. Some people say he became Muslim because he just wanted to get out. I don’t think Peter changed his religion to make himself free—no, no. I know Peter as a belief man. When he does something, he does it because he believes it is right.
He changed my mind when I was thinking of going to fight. He said, ‘No, don’t go to fight. If you go to fight, it will bring blood, and blood will bring more blood.
‘If you want to go to Syria, go to help.’
God bless Peter. That’s all.”
Kassig was adopted as a baby and grew up an only child. When he turned 18, he met his birth mother, Rhonda Schwindt, and younger half-siblings Jana and Sam. Kassig embraced these new family members and relished being a big brother, spending countless hours getting to know and love them. Kassig wrote two letters after he was taken hostage: one to his adoptive parents and another to Jana Schwindt, in the spring of 2014. Her mother shared the letter with WTIU in Bloomington, an excerpt of which follows.
Jana, the first and most important thing to remember is that I love you and Sam more than words can ever express. I am afraid, of course, but I am at peace with my situation, and I will face whatever comes with as much dignity and faith as possible. It is very important, Jana, that you do not let anything that may happen to me pull you down. No matter what, I will be OK. I can handle it and I chose to come here knowing the risk and doing what I could do to help others the best way I know how. If I have to die, that’s as good a reason as any.
Now, I have to be a big brother for a bit, even though I’ve been slacking for a while. I have made many mistakes, but I have also seen and done quite a bit in a short time. Despite the fact that you are two times as smart as me and eight times as mature, there may be a few bits and bobs here and there that I can pass on to you that you may find useful.
No. 1: Family is undeniably the most important thing. If there is one thing I wish I appreciated more, focused on more, and missed the most is my family. When everything else is gone, family is all you have.
No. 2: Belief. It’s important, Jana, to find, develop, and maintain an ethos of some sort. It will give you direction and purpose. It can be an incredible source of strength, inspiration, motivation and resilience when things get tough.
No. 3: Education is paramount. Get as much of it as you can and work hard in your classes. Never, ever stop reading, Jana. Try to learn something everyday. Pick a career path that drives you and challenges you, but make sure that you follow your passion. Don’t be afraid to take risks and don’t waste time doing something that makes you miserable. Life is way too short.
No. 4: Make sure you take time for the little things. Remember, you always have more time than you think you do. Read, go for walks, dance, sing, and laugh.
No. 5: Civic duty. I encourage you to embrace the concept of responsibility to your fellow man and to your community, however you choose.
No. 6: Marriage and family. I hope you do whatever makes you the most happy. Whether that’s marriage and kids or not, that’s up to you. But, Jana, no matter what, always maintain your independence.
And No. 7: Never be afraid to love. I will be happy if you are happy.
Finally, live abroad, travel, cause trouble, take risk. I suggest you travel as much as you can. Cause some mischief here and there, and don’t play it too safe. But, please be careful.
I pray for the chance to see you and Sam again. I love you so much it hurts, and I think of you all the time.
Never give up. Never stop loving.
Your brother always,
Lindsey Stevens contributed to this article.
Kassig uniform photo via Facebook; all other photos courtesy SERA and Kassig family