U.S. Hostage Kayla Mueller Remembered for Humanitarian Work from Syria to Occupied Territories

February 11, 2015


Emily Schick

Kayla Mueller’s former college roommate at Northern Arizona University. She previously volunteered at the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank, where Mueller also briefly worked.

Mauri Saalakhan

director of operations for The Peace and Justice Foundation.

One day after her family confirmed her death in Syria, we remember the life of 26-year-old U.S. aid worker Kayla Mueller. Mueller’s captors, the Islamic State, say she was killed in a Jordanian airstrike last week. On Tuesday, the family said it had received proof she had died, but it remains unclear how. Mueller moved to the Turkish-Syrian border in late 2012 to work with Syrian refugees. She had previously worked with refugees overseas including Tibetans in India, Africans in Israel, and Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Mueller disappeared in August 2013 after she was abducted while leaving a northern Syria hospital. In a letter written during her captivity, Mueller told her family: "I have been shown in darkness, light, and have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it." We are joined by two guests: Emily Schick, Mueller’s college roommate at Northern Arizona University and a fellow volunteer at the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank; and Mauri Saalakhan of The Peace and Justice Foundation, who campaigned for Mueller’s release.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show remembering Kayla Mueller, the 26-year-old U.S. aid worker who has died while being held captive in Syria. Last week, her captors, militants from the Islamic State, said Mueller had died in a Jordanian airstrike on the city of Raqqa. Mueller’s family and the White House confirmed her death on Tuesday. Kayla Mueller disappeared in August 2013 after she was abducted while leaving a hospital in northern Syria. On Tuesday, her family released a letter she had written while in captivity. She wrote, quote, "I have been shown in darkness, light and have learned that even in prison, one can be free. I am grateful. I have come to see that there is good in every situation, sometimes we just have to look for it."

AMY GOODMAN: Kayla Mueller moved to the Turkish-Syrian border in late 2012 to work with Syrian refugees. Prior to her trip, she posted a message on YouTube expressing her support for the Syrian protests.

KAYLA MUELLER: I am in solidarity with the Syrian people. I reject the brutality and killing that the Syrian authorities are committing against the Syrian people. Because silence is participation in this crime, I declare my participation in the Syrian sit-in on YouTube.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Kayla had previously worked with refugees overseas, including Tibetan refugees in India, African refugees in Israel, and Palestinian refugees in the Occupied Territories. While in the West Bank, she worked with the International Solidarity Movement. On Tuesday, Mueller’s relatives and friends spoke outside the county courthouse in her hometown of Prescott, Arizona. This is her aunt, Lori Lyon.

LORI LYON: She has done more in her incredible 26 years than many people can ever imagine doing in their lifetime. My daughter said to me, "Things that were important to Kayla are finally getting the attention that they deserve." Kayla has touched the heart of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Joining us now from Portland, Oregon, is Emily Schick. She was Kayla Mueller’s college roommate at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. She volunteered at the International Solidarity Movement in the West Bank, as well, where Kayla would later briefly work.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Emily. Our condolences to you, to all of Kayla’s friends, to her family. Can you talk about who Kayla was?

EMILY SCHICK: Thank you so much for having me on the show. It’s an honor to be able to speak about Kayla today. Kayla was a remarkable individual. She brought a profound connection full of love to all of her relationships, whether it was to her family members, her closest friends, or refugees halfway across the world who she had never met, whose causes she worked for from Arizona. One thing that I feel is really important to know about Kayla is that she had a tremendous clarity of purpose. She saw her role in the world as to serve anyone in need who she could be useful to. And those convictions have guided her since quite a young age.

AMY GOODMAN: How did she end up in the West Bank, Emily? You went there first?

EMILY SCHICK: That’s correct, yes. I volunteered with ISM for the first half of 2010, and Kayla came later that year. She had been traveling around the world, working for various organizations that year, including multiple locations in India and in Israel, as you mentioned, with the African Refugee Development Center. I had been in correspondence with her while I was in the West Bank, and we had been telling stories back and forth about our travels and what we were witnessing. And she chose to go to the West Bank and join us after she finished her time working with African refugees in Israel.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when you talked with her, what did she share with you about why she felt compelled to go to these far-off places to help others?

EMILY SCHICK: Kayla felt connected to pretty much everybody, whether it was, you know, for instance, me, her college roommate, from the very first day I lived with her, to someone she would meet on the street, to something she would hear about in the news or learn about in one of her classes in college. She felt a very, very humble sense of connection and humanity to everybody she learned about. And if she saw a way to be useful or in service to those people, then she would do that.

AMY GOODMAN: Emily, we also know that Kayla was a Democracy Now! listener and viewer. She wrote to us several times over the last few years, urging us to cover the war in Syria. In 2010, she wrote, quote, "I rely on DN! for reliable, well-researched, honest news as I feel DN! is one of the few remaining news outlets that is not 'owned' or simply fulfilling an agenda. After recently returning from one year abroad and working in Palestine with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), among other non-profits across the globe, I have witnessed first-hand and have been disheartened by the dishonesty in this countries 'news' agencies." How did she get this level of awareness? I mean, she traveled to more countries than most people do in an entire lifetime. Where did that desire to help people around the world come from, and her—not only her activism, but her, you know, really interesting media analysis, understanding how people get information about the issues she was involved with?

EMILY SCHICK: Sure, yeah. As I said earlier, Kayla seems to have felt these convictions very strongly from a young age. And as she grew older, through her activism, through her work with different causes, through the classes she took at Northern Arizona University, through her travels, she had this amazing, curious mind. She wanted to learn as much as possible about how these systems—economic systems, political systems—work, how they affect people, and where the points of intervention were. That was something that was tremendously important to her. Kayla, I think it’s really important to understand that, for her, people came first, and policy came after that. You know, I think people are trying to understand now whether she was particularly politically engaged, and I think it’s important to see that she was primarily a humanitarian activist. Human needs were her goal, and she engaged in politics when she saw the utility of that in benefiting the people that she was advocating for.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Were you aware that she was being held? Because the United States government tries to keep as much of information about these captors—captives away from the public.

EMILY SCHICK: I did learn—I did learn during her time being held hostage, mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring into the conversation Mauri Saalakhan, director of operations for Washington, D.C.-based Peace and Justice Foundation. Last year, Kayla’s family reached out to him for help in trying to secure her freedom. Mauri heads up the U.S. campaign to free the Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui. Last July, militants from the Islamic State told Kayla’s family she would be executed in 30 days if Siddiqui was not released from U.S. custody or the American’s family did not pay a multimillion-dollar ransom. In 2010, Aafia Siddiqui was convicted of attempted murder for shooting at U.S. soldiers and FBI agents while being questioned in Afghanistan in 2008. Prior to this incident, Siddiqui said she was held and tortured in secret U.S. prisons over a five-year period. Mauri Saalakhan wrote an open letter to Kayla’s captives. In his letter, he compared Kayla Mueller to Rachel Corrie, the 23-year-old American activist who was crushed to death by an Israeli military bulldozer in Gaza March 16, 2003.

Mauri Saalakhan, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about how the story of Kayla gets intertwined with this story and how her family reached out to you?

MAURI SAALAKHAN: I received a call one night in August of last year from the pastor, Reverend Kathleen Day, of Kayla and her family. And she walked me through the nightmare that the family had been going through for about a year at that time. And she said that they were kind of in a countdown mode, because they were in the last 48 or 72 hours of the ultimatum, and they were feeling desperate. And they reached out to see if there was anything that we might be able to do to help. And, of course, I immediately expressed my empathy for what the family and the close network of friends were going through as a result of this nightmare, and my response was, the best I could do was to pray and to reach out to Aafia’s family and ask them if they would consider writing a letter, a statement, addressed to Kayla’s captors, calling for her release unconditionally, and that I would do the same. And subsequent to the conversation, that’s what we did.

You know, I want to say something about this—the wonderful spirit of this young woman. You know, her friend, when she was just talking about her clarity of purpose, it reminded me of the revolutionary psychiatrist of Martinique, Frantz Fanon, in his Wretched of the Earth, and a very profound observation he made in that book when he said, "Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it." What makes Kayla, as it did Rachel Corrie, as it does also Aafia Siddiqui, as a young enterprising student so unique was this fire, this passion of having recognized what their mission in life should be, and going after it and infusing that spirit in the consciousness of others. She was a very unique and blessed soul.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And once you issued that letter on behalf of the family, what happened subsequently?

MAURI SAALAKHAN: Well, the date of threatened execution came and went. And, you know, God only knows what factored into the change of mind or heart of Kayla’s captors, but she wasn’t executed on that date. And the family of Aafia, both in Pakistan and her brother here in the United States, and Aafia’s network of supporters, we’ve been in sync with praying for and hoping for something positive to happen around this issue surrounding Kayla Mueller. You know, I’ve been in contact, a constant stream of contact, with the pastor. In fact, we just spoke, I think the last time, the day before yesterday by telephone. And I did speak, as well, at one point to the family, to Kayla’s mother and her father, a couple of months back, and just letting them know that they have a lot of people that were praying for Kayla and her family, outside of their own network.

AMY GOODMAN: Ultimately, it’s believed that ISIS did not execute Kayla. They say that it was the Jordanian airstrike that killed her. Is that your understanding, Mauri?

MAURI SAALAKHAN: That is my understanding. And there is this debate going on right now as to whether she did in fact die as a result of an airstrike, or did she not. And, of course, the U.S. and its allies are emphasizing the point that even if she did, still Isis is to blame because they held her captive.

AMY GOODMAN: Mauri Saalakhan and Emily Schick, we want to thank you for being with us. That does it for the show. I’ll be speaking with Cecile Richards tonight at BAM, the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

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