Remembering Steven Sotloff, Who Drew Portraits From The Syrian War

Reporter Nadege Green of WLRN looks back on the life and career of American journalist Steven Sotloff, who was beheaded by the militant group the Islamic State.

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Steven Sotloff is being remembered today as an empathetic reporter, committed to telling stories of ordinary people living through brutal conflicts. He worked in some of the most dangerous places in the Middle East. Sotloff disappeared in Syria in August of last year. And this week, militants released a video depicting him being killed by one of his captors, a member of the so-called Islamic State.

Late today, a spokesperson for the Sotloff family delivered a statement both in English and Arabic to reporters. He said the 31-year-old journalist decided to forego the comforts of a middle-class existence in the U.S. because he was drawn to the Arab world.

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SPOKESPERSON: He was no war junkie. He did not want to be a modern-day Lawrence of Arabia. He merely wanted to give voice to those who had none.

CORNISH: The community near Miami were Steven Sotloff grew up is especially affected by his dad. Nadege Green of member station WLRN spoke to people who knew him.

NADEGE GREEN, BYLINE: In his mission to tell stories from the Middle East, Steven Sotloff made a conscious decision to keep his own personal story quiet.

TERRY BOOKMAN: There was concern that, perhaps, if his Jewish identity was known, it would endanger his life.

GREEN: That's Rabbi Terry Bookman of Temple Beth Am. He officiated at Sotloff's bar mitzvah. He recalls Sotloff as mischievous.

BOOKMAN: He was playful. I think he liked challenging the limits. You know, I always liked that about him. You know, he didn't just take surface for an answer. He was always challenging and digging deeper and trying to find out the truth.

GREEN: Bookman stayed in touch with Sotloff throughout the years and says he was always devout, but he didn't want faith to compromise his ability to tell his stories. Sotloff grew up in Pine Crest, a suburb of Miami. His mother, Shirley Sotloff, taught preschool at Temple Beth Am for more than 20 years. The family attended regular services there.

Sotloff went on to study journalism at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, but he never graduated. According to Israeli newspapers, in 2005 he went to Israel to live and study. An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman posted on Twitter, Sotloff had dual citizenship - that he was a U.S.-Israeli citizen.

The Middle East was the focus of his reporting. He wrote freelance articles for numerous well-respected publications. Ishaan Tharoor was one of Sotloff's editors at Time Magazine. He calls Sotloff a genuine correspondent.

ISHAAN THAROOR: You see, sometimes, that many correspondents get very caught up in the larger geopolitics of a crisis - you know, what outside powers are involved, what's at stake for the United States. But Stephen was always talking to locals around him - was always more concerned by issues of systemic failures in society and governments. He cared very much about the common man.

GREEN: Tharoor says one story stands out. It wasn't for Time, but for Foreign Policy. It was a report from the Syrian city of Aleppo.

THAROOR: He went around the city - the city that's in the midst of all sorts of hideous war and shelling and street fights - and stood in various bread lines in the city, waiting for rations alongside other Aleppo citizens. And you get a really haunting, really intimate portrait of what it's like to be someone in Aleppo, surrounded by a war that involves some brutal elements on all sides. And you get a sense of this real just genuine fatigue of the people there - the revolutionary fatigue they had. And it's this kind of very haunting portrait of life in the middle of a civil war.

GREEN: His Sotloff family would not comment for this story. They will hold a memorial service Friday at Temple Beth Am. For NPR News, I'm Nadege Green in Miami.

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