Naji al-Jorf was shot in the head in broad daylight on Sunday, Dec. 27, in Gaziantep, Turkey. He left behind his wife and two young daughters. The entire family had planned to leave for France the next day.
Naji was a Syrian journalist. He had recently produced and directed a video called “ISIS in Aleppo” documenting the terror group’s activities in the Syrian city of Aleppo, including interviews with witnesses of brutal atrocities. To protect himself and his family from retribution, the 38-year-old cut his hair and tried to change his appearance, according to a friend interviewed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
After Naji was murdered, one ISIL supporter who calls himself the “Levantine terrorist,” tweeted in celebration: “Naji al-Jorf, an infidel who produced a movie against the Islamic State, was killed in Turkey.”
I first met Naji in 2012, in his small office in Damascus. Back then, we were both still working to document and spread word of the popular uprising against president Bashar al-Assad, and ISIL had not yet declared itself a caliphate in our country.
Naji gave me tips and photography lessons. He put me in touch with people who might be interested in publishing the footage I took. I was one of hundreds of people who were helped by this man.
Later that year, Naji fled to Jordan and then to Istanbul, Turkey, where he worked with an organization that offers support to communities in conflict areas. One of its projects focused on training and empowering media activists. In 2013, Naji took over the project, leading it from the border town of Gaziantep. He believed in the role of citizen journalists and the importance of their role at a time when professional journalists were wary of risking their lives in war-torn Syria.
In Gaziantep, hotels are often fully booked by researchers, journalists and aid workers from all parts of the world. Everyone there is hungry for news from Syria, but no one wants to cross into a territory of barrel bombs, air strikes, and ISIL atrocities. Increasingly, though, it seems that life on the Turkish side of the border isn’t safe, either.
Naji isn’t the first Syrian journalist to have been assassinated in Turkey. Two members of Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, an International Press Freedom Award-winning organization dedicated to documenting crimes against humanity in the Syrian city of Raqqa, were found with their throats slashed and multiple stabbing wounds in their apartment in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa on Nov. 2. On Twitter and social media, supporters of the Islamic state claimed to have committed the crime.
Syrian activist Jawdat Malas, 19, fled to Turkey after having been temporarily jailed in Syria by al-Qaeda affiliate Al Nusra Front, but he is afraid to stay. “I will go to Europe as soon as I save enough money,” he tells Quartz. “I don’t want to be killed in Turkey by the same people I have fled. Turkey is probably trying to protect us, but we are too many here, and it has huge borders with Syria.”
A fighter for the Islamic State tells Quartz that he goes to Turkey several times per month, sometimes pretending to be an injured civilian. So far, he says, no one has stopped him, not even for questioning. A few militant groups are known to keep safe houses within the country; a journalist trying to fight their influence, or a civilian trying to escape them, could end up living with them in the same street.
In a conversation I had with Naji earlier in October, he told me that he had been threatened many times. Not only by ISIL—extremists of all stripes do not want media activists to be trained and on the ground in Syria. He knew the danger he was in. Fearing for the safety of his family in Turkey, Naji asked the French government for asylum. It was granted, but too late.
2015 is the first year since World War II that the number of refugees worldwide has topped 50 million, according to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. The greatest percentage of them are Syrians, who have been harassed, beaten, cheated and forced into mortal peril as they seek to enter Europe. Why do families with children and elderly take such risks, when they could stay in nearby Turkey or Lebanon? Naji’s death is just one example of a bitter and often-overlooked truth: The easiest and closest refuge is not always the safest.