On a trip home to Prescott in 2013, Kayla Mueller spoke to her dad’s Kiwanis Club about the work she was doing with Syrians in refugee camps in Turkey.
She talked about families chased from their homes by violence, about children injured by bombs, girls forced into early marriages, and about kids torn away from their parents and forced to fight.
“When Syrians hear I’m an American, they ask, ‘Where is the world?’” Kayla said, according to a story in the local newspaper, The Daily Courier. Why, they wondered, wasn’t the world coming to their rescue?
“All I can do is cry with them,” she said, “because I don’t know.”
The world seems to have noticed Syria now. A suspected chemical attack April 4 on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in northwestern Syria killed as many as 100 people, including children, the latest atrocity this month in a country that has seen little else.
Kayla’s parents think she would have liked that people were paying attention.
“Whenever people are suffering the most is where Kayla always seemed to be drawn,” Marsha Mueller said.
“Now she’s throwing us into it.”
A few months after Kayla spoke at the Kiwanis Club meeting in Prescott, she was kidnapped in Aleppo by ISIS, then a largely unknown rebel group. She was killed 18 months later in 2015, still in captivity.
Kayla was 26. She had traveled into some of the most dangerous parts of the world, areas scarred by poverty and violence, to work with humanitarian groups.
By all accounts, Kayla knew what she was getting into in Syria. She went anyway.
Because she had made a promise at the Kiwanis Club that day and to her parents:
“For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal, something we just accept.”
An olive branch, a time to forgive
Carl and Marsha Mueller are trying to keep that promise.
They started a foundation not long after Kayla’s death. With money raised through Kayla’s Hands, the Muellers had hoped to support the causes that were important to their daughter: children, women, veterans, education.
They also helped the Kiwanis Club of Prescott build a playground not far from their house to honor Kayla.
“You should see the playground,” Marsha said. “It is just overrun with children and families.”
“It really is nice to see,” Carl said.
Then in February, the Muellers donated $120,000 to the non-profit Doctors Without Borders, a prestigious international humanitarian organization. The donation surprised some people. The Muellers had earlier criticized the group for refusing to help negotiate for their daughter’s freedom after she was kidnapped by ISIS as it did for some of its own employees.
“They’re a fabulous organization, and they do wonderful work,” Carl Mueller told ABC News in August, “but somewhere in a boardroom, they decided to leave our daughter there to be tortured and raped and ultimately murdered.”
Kayla had not been working for Doctors Without Borders. But she had been supportive of their work. She had had the group’s map up on her wall at least since she was a student at Northern Arizona University. She had spent her last night of freedom helping a friend fix computers at one of the organization’s hospitals in Aleppo.
The donation was what Kayla would have wanted, her father said.
“It was kind of an olive leaf, reaching out to them,” Carl said. “And to make people see they need to forgive. That’s part of why we did it.”
Doctors Without Borders created an endowment in Kayla’s name to support medical and humanitarian aid programs operating in nearly 70 countries.
The Muellers also announced at that time that they would be dissolving Kayla’s Hands. In all, they raised and donated about $160,000 through the foundation.
“It was just too much for Marsha to deal with,” Carl said. She sent out thank-you letters, juggled donations, met with people, arranged meetings, the finances and the paperwork. “It was just more than we wanted to handle,” he said.
‘Just like Kayla did’
But as they made plans to donate the last of the money, other opportunities to help arose. The Muellers found they couldn’t turn away from the causes that were so important to their daughter. Especially now, when the world’s attention was finally turning to the events in Syria.
The Muellers watched as their own country responded to the suspected chemical attack, as President Donald Trump ordered the U.S. military to bombard a Syrian military airfield with 59 Tomahawk missiles.
In February, Carl and Marsha Mueller were at a Syrian American Medical Society convention in Long Beach, Calif., where they met with representatives of Students Organized for Syria, or SOS.
The students asked if they could use Kayla’s name for a medical supply drive. They are soliciting medical equipment from hospitals in the U.S. and raising money to pay to ship those items to Syria.
Carl admired their passion. “They’re college kids that are doing it,” he said. “Just like Kayla did.”
The Muellers are promoting the drive. There’s a Facebook page where people can pledge money to help pay to ship that medical equipment to Syria.
“We’re trying to raise that awareness and get people involved,” Carl said. “It’s what Kayla was trying to do.”
“I think everybody has something that just touches them, and I think that’s the most important. Where ever your heart leads you to help, that’s where you should help,” Marsha said.
It is a lesson they learned from Kayla.
Searching for closure
I’ve been writing about the Muellers since they went public in February 2015 about the abduction and death of their daughter. I’ve been to their house and Kayla’s playground several times. We talk on the phone. I check in with them to see how they are coping. They call with news.
They let me know they were in Scottsdale last week to give a $5,000 check to a non-profit group called Folds of Honor, which gives educational scholarships to the children and spouses of veterans killed or disabled while on duty.
We talked on the phone Saturday morning, both Carl and Marsha on the line. At the fundraising luncheon for the group, Marsha told me, the speaker was a woman named Ginger Gilbert Ravella. Her pilot husband was killed in a jet crash in Iraq 10 years ago and his remains were finally returned to her late last year.
As the pilot’s wife spoke, Marsha said she thought of how she keeps Kayla’s letters and journals, and how they comfort her. But the Muellers have not had the closure that comes with a funeral and burial. Kayla’s body has not been recovered and that makes it harder to believe she’s really gone.
“Ginger’s words gave me hope that we also will someday bring Kayla home and Peter, James and Steven as well,” Marsha said. American humanitarian aid worker Abdul-Rahman Peter Kassig and journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff also were kidnapped and killed by ISIS, their bodies never returned.
Somebody does care
For now, the Muellers focus on Syria and the work they believe Kayla would have done there. They are making good on the promise their daughter made.
“She didn’t want to work in the office, she didn’t want to shuffle paperwork or write checks. She wanted to be out there touching these people and showing them that someone really does care,” Carl said. “I think that is really important.”
Last week, the Muellers arranged for about 4,000 blankets, donated by a Prescott non-profit organization called Blankets 4 Kids, to be sent to children in Syria.
The blankets are rolled up, wrapped around a crocheted hat, scarf and stuffed animal, and tied with a ribbon.Others are plain, 12 in a box. They will be distributed at refugee camps and medical facilities, Carl said.
“People might think, ‘Big deal. They’re sending blankets,’” Carl said.
“It’s not just about the blankets. When everything you own is on your back and everything you used to own is destroyed, a blanket is comforting,” he said. “But it also is comforting for those people to know that someone somewhere cares.”
Children get very attached to blankets. They will be their own, to keep.
“And they will know, these came from America. Somebody does care.”
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