Abdul-Rahman Kassig, a U.S. medic whom ISIS claimed Sunday to have beheaded after holding him hostage for a year, was a former Army Ranger turned humanitarian who found his calling in helping everyday people fleeing conflicts in the Middle East.
Kassig, an Iraq war veteran from Indianapolis, first traveled to the region in March 2012 during college spring break. It was during that trip, he wrote in an email, that he went to refugee camps outside Beirut, Lebanon, and saw there was a "shortage of everything except suffering."
"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," he wrote in the message dated March 18, 2012, in which he announced he was withdrawing from his classes to stay and help.
"Here, in this land, I have found my calling," he continued. "Every day that I am here I have more questions and less answers, but what I do know is that I have a chance to do something here, to take a stand. To make a difference."
For the next 18 months, Kassig made good on those words: He helped the refugees in Lebanon, began a non-governmental organization — Special Emergency Response and Assistance, or SERA — and moved to Turkey, a launching point for helping children and families in eastern Syria trying to escape the fighting.
"He found his calling in Syria and along the Syrian border," his parents, Ed and Paula Kassig, said in a statement Oct. 30. "As he wrote in 2012, 'What keeps me up at night isn't the things I've done when I shouldn't have so as much as the things I haven't done when I could have. I'd be OK if I never slept again lest I forget those moments.'"
Kassig volunteered for ambulance duty and in hospitals in Syria's Deir Ezzour to treat the wounded, his parents said, noting that Syrian doctors and a nurse had attested to their son's work and called for his freedom. That appeal was also made by medical professionals Kassig met in Lebanon who were impressed with his dedication.
"He was full of sympathy for people, and he had some useful skills," Dr. Ahmed Obeid, who met Kassig in Lebanon, told the Los Angeles Times. "He was very courageous. Maybe that was his undoing in the end."
ISIS militants kidnapped Kassig on Oct. 1, 2013, while he was transporting medical supplies in an ambulance.
"In an area of Syria where many doctors had fled, Abdul-Rahman went directly into Syria to help those in need and his organization, SERA, provided first aid training to civilians so they could treat the injured and save lives," his parents said in their Oct. 30 statement. "Through SERA, Abdul-Rahman brought in much-needed medical supplies."
Born Peter Kassig, he began converting to Islam before his abduction. He was last seen Oct. 1 in an ISIS propaganda video that showed the beheading of British aid worker Alan Henning, and the militants threatened that Kassig would be next.
French journalist Nicolas Henin, whom ISIS militants released in April, shared a cell with Kassig. He recalled Kassig as having a good heart and a sweet tooth, exchanging his food rations with fellow hostages for candy and jam.
"He arrived in the region with a lot of curiosity, and he decided to stay out of goodwill," Henin said. "He just realized that the people of the region needed help, that they were living in a humanitarian drama. Maybe it was not realistic ... considering the level of danger he put himself in, but at the end of the day he was extremely sincere."
After Kassig was shown in the video, his parents came forward, pleading for his release. In interviews, they shared a letter he wrote to them in June that another former hostage had been able to smuggle out. He talked about playing chess and laughing with friends, and about sharing stories and dreams of home and loved ones. He acknowledged fearing death and living with the uncertainty of not knowing whether he would be killed.
"If I do die, I figure that 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," he wrote.
"Just know I'm with you," he added. "Every stream, every lake, every field and river. In the woods and in the hills, in all the places you showed me."
On Sunday, his parents mourned his death.
"Fed by a strong desire to use his life to save the lives of others, Abdul-Rahman was drawn to the camps that are filled with displaced families and to understaffed hospitals inside Syria. We know he found his home amongst the Syrian people, and he hurt when they were hurting," they wrote in a statement. "We are incredibly proud of our son for living his life according to his humanitarian calling. We will work every day to keep his legacy alive as best we can."
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