On February 9, 2015 news outlets across the world announced the death of Kayla Jean Mueller, 26, at the hands of her ISIS militant captors in Syria.
She had been kidnapped 18 months earlier with a friend as they sought a bus to return to their homes in Turkey. In the days that followed, her parents shared some of her writings and I found myself deeply moved by her words, her life of service and her relationship with God.
After graduating from college in 2009, Kayla worked with humanitarian aid groups in India, Israel, and Palestine. She returned home to Flagtaff, AZ, in 2011 and worked at an HIV/AIDS clinic. For her dad’s birthday that year she wrote:
“I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine. If this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you. I will always seek God. Some people find God in church. Some people find God in nature. Some people find God in love; I find God in suffering. I’ve known for some time what my life’s work is, using my hands as tools to relieve suffering.”
In 2012 Kayla left home again to work with refugees on the Syria / Turkish border. She accompanied a male friend to Aleppo, Syria in August of that year and after he repaired a computer for Doctors Without Borders they both looked for a bus to return to Turkey. She and he instead were kidnapped by ISIS.
Six months later Kayla smuggled a hand written letter out of her prison cell via a fellow prisoner who was released. The sentiments she shared in this single, cramped page have a depth of spiritually that is seldom expressed by a person of her age.
In Her Words
I could only but write the letter a paragraph at a time, just the thought of you all sends me into a fit of tears. If you could say I have ‘suffered’ at all throughout this whole experience it is only in knowing how much suffering I have put you all through; I will never ask you to forgive me as I do not deserve forgiveness. I remember mom always telling me that all in all in the end the only one you really have is God. I have come to a place in experience where, in every sense of the word, I have surrendered myself to our creator b/c literally there was no else … + by God + by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in freefall.
I have been shown in darkness, light + 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. I pray each day that if nothing else, you have felt a certain closeness + surrender to God as well + have formed a bond of love + support amongst one another…
I have had many hours to think how only in your absence have I finally @ 25 years old come to realize your place in my life. The gift that is each one of you + the person I could + could not be if you were not a part of my life, my family, my support.
I DO NOT want the negotiations for my release to be your duty, if there is any other option take it, even if it takes more time.
None of us could have known it would be this long but I know I am also fighting from my side in the ways I am able + I have a lot of fight left inside of me. I am not breaking down + I will not give in no matter how long it takes. I wrote a song some months ago that says, ‘The part of me that pains the most also gets me out of bed, w/out your hope there would be nothing left …’ aka- The thought of your pain is the source of my own, simultaneously the hope of our reunion is the source of my strength. Please be patient, give your pain to God. I know you would want me to remain strong. That is exactly what I am doing. Do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I + by God’s will we will be together soon.
All my everything.
In Our Hearts
The experience of captivity affected Kayla on a deep spiritual level. Her freedom to travel the world was curtailed to a few square feet of a prison cell. Her humanitarian aid was limited to teaching her guards how to do origami.
All she had was her memory of her family and her love for her God who tenderly cradled her in free fall. She realized there is good in every situation and she saw no reason to give up hope of being freed to rejoin her family. Tenacity, vulnerability, gratitude, reconciliation and nonviolence were the hallmarks of this extraordinarily heroic, strong, women—a powerful model for young and old in our fractured world.
There is a Kayla hidden deep, deep within each of us—not so much in plain sight. This is the reason why her story affects and resonates with us. The Kayla within reminds us of a new way to deal with evil and suffering in our world. It helps us realize that our God suffers with us and supports us and all who be in free fall—the times in life when we are out of control and cannot change what is happening to us. She ends with “All my everything” indicating her total heartfelt love for mom and dad and, no doubt, for her God.
by Ariana Grianda
To think that I was wrong
I guess you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone
Pain is just a consequence of love
I’m sayin’ sorry for the sake of us
You are my everything
I know you’re not far but I still can’t handle all the distance
You’re travelling with my heart
I hope this is a temporary feeling
‘Cause it’s too much to bear
Without you and I know sorry ain’t the cure
If I cross your mind just know I’m yours
‘Cause what we got is worth fighting for
‘Cause you are…
Brother Ed Phelan, FSC, 74, is Auxiliary Provincial of the De La Salle Christian Brothers District of Eastern North America (DENA). He has lived and worked with hundreds of young lasallians in the last 30 years – many of whom remind him of Kayla Mueller.