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Mother of John Gallagher, killed fighting ISIS, remembers son as human rights activist

The mother of a Canadian who was killed while fighting against ISIS militants in Syria says she would like him to be remembered as a passionate defender of human rights while a U.S. man who fought alongside John Gallagher described him as "more of a scholar than a soldier."

Ex-soldier who volunteered with Kurdish forces killed by suicide bomber

John Robert Gallagher, here in a photo shared on his Facebook page, was reportedly killed while fighting against ISIS in Syria. (Facebook)

The mother of John Gallagher, a Canadian who was killed while fighting against ISIS militants in Syria, says she would like him to be remembered as a passionate defender of human rights.

"If people reading about him could take away that there are causes that are worth thinking about and that are worth engaging in," a tearful Valerie Carder told CBC News. "It's not just enough to sit back and go, 'I'm glad I was born in Canada. Being here, there's a responsibility, and if I believe that I should be willing to act on my beliefs.'"

"It's very numbing," Carder said, describing the feeling of having lost her son.

Carder said a journalist informed her Wednesday that her son had been killed and suggested she call the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights in London.

The organization said Wednesday it was informed Gallagher died when an ISIS militant "detonated himself" during fighting in the al-Hool area of Syria. 

Carder said the person who answered her call "stated some facts from my son's passport, which matched up with birthplace and birthdate."

She said her son believed "a lot of evils around the world have come out of religious fundamentalist attitudes, not merely Islamic, but fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist anything.

"It is fundamentalism that he thought got in the way of human rights, and it's a fight he chose to pursue," Carder said.

Carder, who spoke with her son last Friday, said she'll miss his conversations and his smile.

"He's really funny, he's very insightful," she said, her voice breaking.

American fighter has fond memories of Gallagher

Mathew Hughes, an American, told CBC News he spent four months with Gallagher in Iraq and Syria. The two had landed in Iraq within days of each other and stuck together as they snuck into Syria to join the Kurdish forces there.

"We were there from from the moment I arrived in Iraq all the way into Syria," Hughes said. "I'd say out of anyone there, all the Western volunteers — and I met at least 50 of them — John was the only one who stayed with me the entire time."

Hughes was injured two months ago and returned to the United States. He remembers his friend as a skilled soldier who loved talking politics.

"He seemed to be more of a scholar than a soldier," Hughes said. "[Gallagher] still had those basic soldering instincts and that same drive a soldier would have, but we talked more about politics than about war."

Hughes says he plans to return to Syria as a way of honouring Gallagher's memory.

Saeed Rahnema, a professor of political science and public policy at York, who taught John Gallagher, told CBC News that his former student was a human rights activist who "hated ISIS" but opposed Canada's military involvement in Syria.

"He was idealistic," Rahnema said. "You must be really idealistic to leave your quiet life and go to a war zone, to a region you don't know much about. He was a great idealist."

Rahnema also described Gallagher as a star student.

"John was my student both at the undergraduate course, which was called War and Peace in the Middle East, and also at the graduate level two years later. That course was called Religious Fundamentalism in Global Politics," he said. "He was one of the most brilliant students I've had."

Rahnema said Gallagher informed him in the summer of 2014 that he was thinking of going to Syria and Iraq. Rahnema discouraged Gallagher from going, encouraging him instead to enrol in the PhD program, because "he would have made a fantastic scholar."

He said Gallagher emailed him last February saying he was adamant about going to Iraq, and Rahnema once again discouraged him from leaving Canada.

A former infantryman with the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, Gallagher volunteered with Kurdish forces in northern Iraq in May before crossing into Syria in early July.

Gallagher emailed professor from Syria

In September, Gallagher emailed Rahnema from Syria.

"He said he was hopeful the war would end positively," Rahnema said. "I told him it was a dangerous place and that he'd be more useful here. Unfortunately, he did not listen, and yesterday when I heard a Canadian had been killed fighting ISIS, I was hoping it was not him."

Retired lieutenant-colonel Morris Brause, a 41-year Canadian Forces veteran and former commanding officer of the Essex-Kent Scottish Regiment, sympathized with Gallagher.

"I know a lot of soldiers who served overseas, they tried to help people out in unfortunate circumstances that have happened in a lot of nations, and when they see an organization like ISIS that are literally hurting people and their own people, sometimes soldiers can't take that and they want to make a difference," Brause told CBC.

Soldiers like Gallagher try "to free these people from tyranny," he said.

"I think he went over for the right reasons and frame of mind."

In 2010, Gallagher ran for councillor in Toronto's Ward 8.

During an all-candidates meeting hosted by Democracy In Action at York Woods Library on Oct. 18 of that year, Gallagher described himself as "one of the least political people I know, but I do understand principles like service to your community and civic duty."

Gallagher told the audience, "We need more support in this community for the disadvantaged" as well as students, single mothers and newcomers.

"It comes down to being the change you want to see in the world," he said.

With files from Alex Brockman and Makda Ghebreslassie/CBC

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