Call it a mother’s intuition, but Diane Foley knew something just wasn’t right when her eldest son, James didn’t contact the family last Thanksgiving. As the day wore on, her worries grew, because no matter where in the world he was, Jim always found time to call his family, especially on major holidays.
Last Thanksgiving, that call never came.
Diane, a nurse practitioner in the family’s home state of New Hampshire, had spoken with Jim about four or five days earlier. On assignment in Syria, he had called her at work to offer his condolences on the recent death of her 104-year-old aunt.
The previous month, the family had celebrated Jim’s 39th birthday with him at their home and Jim had been texting or Skyping the family every couple days during his trip to Syria to cover that country’s civil war as a freelance journalist for GlobalPost.
“He’s very good about calling us on major holidays or important days, so on Thanksgiving Day we expected a phone call and didn’t get one. His mother, being as intuitive as she is, began to worry,” John Foley, an internist, told your Catholic Herald in an interview last Friday, explaining that the next morning, Jim’s fellow journalist, Clare Gillis, called the family to let them know Jim did not return to their home base in Turkey after a reporting assignment over the border in Syria.
“He was scheduled to get back to Turkey the day before. They were waiting for him and were going to use the same driver to send someone else back; when he didn’t show, they knew it was trouble and (Clare) called,” said John.
While the Foley family was alarmed by this development, it was not an unfamiliar scenario for them. About a year and a half earlier, Jim, then freelancing in Libya, was apprehended on a Libyan battlefield and was held captive in a Tripoli jail for 45 days.
Family turns to faith
Just as they did during his first capture, the Foleys are leaning heavily on their Catholic faith for support.
Members of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Parish in Rochester, N.H., Diane, who retired two weeks ago to devote more time to finding James, said she typically begins her days praying the rosary for her son’s safe return, then heads to daily Mass before returning home to her laptop to try to connect with people who can help them locate him.
“I feel God is really with us. God knows where he is; it’s up to us to find him,” said Diane, as John added, “Lord, please don’t make it so hard.”
Diane said that while the prayers of their community and the Marquette community are strengthening, she is concerned about Jim’s emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.
They were in Milwaukee last Friday for a prayer vigil at Marquette University for their missing son, a 1996 Marquette alumnus.
Marquette shaped outreach efforts
While at Marquette, the Foleys said the eldest of their five children developed a social justice awareness. He graduated with a degree in history and joined Teach for America where he taught in inner city schools in Phoenix and Chicago.
“We feel a lot of his social action and wanting to give back, help to the poor and disadvantaged, truly was molded a good part here at Marquette,” said Diane.
Teaching, however, did not “fire his passion,” according to his father.
He enrolled at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and earned a master’s degree in 2008.
By reporting on the atrocities taking place in remote parts of the world, Jim felt he was giving a voice to the voiceless, explained his parents.
“He uncovered what’s happened and the impact on ordinary people in conflict zones, the horror of the war there. It’s been going on almost two years – the horror, the suffering of the innocent people,” said Diane, describing the work that touched his heart to the extent that when he returned, in between stints, he raised about $10,000 for a hospital in the war zone.
Proud, but concerned parents
While proud of his work, the Foleys admitted they were concerned for his safety.
“After one of his returns from Syria, Diane really put him on the spot and said, ‘Why are you doing this?’” said John.
“Of course, as his parents, we are very, very concerned, but he seemed fine and he seemed passionate and determined to return,” said Diane. “We’re very proud of Jim’s work, his courage and passion about it.”
While concerned for his safety, they don’t like to describe Jim as reckless.
“If somebody chooses to do that job in that area of the world and has the passion to really tell the real story, you’re in a dangerous area, I’m not sure that’s reckless,” said John. “Being careful is the order of the day. Reckless is not a description that really fits the situation. Passionate, but not reckless.”
In retrospect, Diane added, “I wish Jimmy would have taken more time to reflect after the last time.”
According to an article in the Winter 2013 edition of the Marquette Magazine, James was embedded with the U.S. Army’s 173rd Brigade and 101st Airborne Division in Afghanistan in 2009 and two years later worked as a freelance journalist in Libya.
Traveling with three other journalists in April 2011, they were surrounded by Moammar Gadhafi forces who opened fire. A South African journalist in their traveling party was killed and Jim, Gillis and a photographer, Manuel Varela, were captured and held for 45 days in a cell about 11 x 11 feet.
The food was decent, he was allowed to shower and most importantly, noted his father, he was allowed to contact his family during this captivity.
Captive turned to rosary
Through that month and a half of uncertainty, James, in a letter to the Marquette community, wrote that he turned to the rosary.
“I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed,” he said, describing how he said 10 Hail Marys between each Our Father, taking his time as he counted the prayers off on his knuckles.
“Clare and I prayed together out loud,” he wrote. “It felt energizing to speak our weaknesses and hopes together, as if in a conversation with God, rather than silently and alone.”
While Jim grew up with the Catholic faith, his parents said his Libyan captivity seemed to draw him closer to God.
“I think his captivity in Libya brought him closer to the Lord,” said Diane, as John added, “It’s not unusual for crisis to bring people closer to God. It’s a major port of entry.”
While captured, he told his mother in a phone call that he had been praying that she would know he was OK. “Haven’t you felt my prayers?” he asked her.
She responded by telling him friends, family, the Marquette community were all praying for him, too.
‘Prayer enabled freedom’
In his letter to Marquette, Jim wrote, “maybe it was others’ prayers strengthening me, keeping me afloat.”
He also wrote that “prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did.”
The Foleys hope their prayers during Jim’s absence will have a similar effect, but they admitted this time, it’s much harder. He’s been missing for more than four months, and unlike last time, when he made contact, it’s been eerily silent.
Because Jim freelances and does not work for one major news organization, the family has to develop contacts on their own in their search for him. Fr. Joseph Khouiery, a priest of Lebanese descent at the neighboring parish in their home Diocese of Manchester, has been helpful, they noted, adding they don’t expect to find Jim through traditional ways.
It’s not a case where governments can negotiate the release of an individual, they explained, because in the Foleys’ case, they don’t know who is holding him.
Instead, they are trying to make contacts with people such as food or oil suppliers or American contractors or anyone who might be close to the situation.
“It’s been four months and we really don’t know any more than what we did the day he was captured. There were several witnesses so we know it happened, we know where it happened, but he hasn’t been seen since, so it’s time to really look at some of those other angles to try to get information,” said Diane.
And, of course, they are leaning on prayer.
“Our hope is that all the prayers being offered, and they are many, (will make a difference.) We have many people doing the novena to Divine Mercy and today we have friends from a prayer group in New Hampshire starting a prayer about the Walls of Jericho, a seven-day prayer, so we have a lot of support that way,” said Diane, adding that Fr. Khouiery offered Masses and Stations of the Cross weekly in Lent for Jim.
“Faith has been part of family life, but this has deepened my faith because there is our hope. Our hope is that God will take care of Jim. Today’s psalm (136) is ‘his mercy endures forever’; we have to trust in that,” said Diane, noting we have to be patient, “in God’s time, not our time.”
John added, “We also have to trust in ‘thy will be done.’ Obviously, we wish this would clear up yesterday, but that’s not the way it works.”