“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.”
– Kayla Mueller, 2011
WASHINGTON – The world knew too little of Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker just killed in captivity in Syria.
The silence was necessary: The Islamic State savages who held the 26-year-old Arizonan for 18 months said they would kill her if her identity got out. And so her family, friends, the government and (with a few unfortunate exceptions) the media withheld her name and all but a cursory description.
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Since her death was confirmed last week, the news has been mostly about how she died (almost certainly not in an allied airstrike, as the Islamic State claims), what else might have been done to save her (probably nothing), whether she had been married off to one of her tormenters and how her parents received photographic proof of her death. The focus on the macabre and the second-guessing is a pity, because it again robs us of a chance to know Kayla Mueller, a young woman who represented the very best of American idealism and faith.
Lucky for us, and too bad for these barbarians, Kayla can still tell her story, through the letter she wrote to her family from captivity last spring, and earlier writings from before her kidnapping, released by her friends and family since her death. Her words provide a vivid contrast with the heartless actions of her captors.
“By God and by your prayers I have felt tenderly cradled in free fall,” she wrote in the letter to her family last year, conveyed by a fellow hostage who had been released. “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.”
Now that no further harm can come to Kayla, it can be told what an exceptional person she was. She joined the campus Christian ministry at Northern Arizona University and plunged into social action: She volunteered nights at a women’s shelter, protested genocide in Darfur and started a chapter of Amnesty International. She volunteered at a summer camp for young African refugees in Israel, and she went to Israel’s occupied territories to show support for the Palestinians. She protested torture in Guantanamo Bay and she went on a humanitarian mission to Guatemala. In India, she taught English to Tibetan refugees and to poor women and children.
“This really is my life’s work, to go where there is suffering,” she wrote in 2010. “I suppose, like us all, I’m learning how to deal with the suffering of the world inside myself.”
In 2011, she wrote: “I believe that if we can’t handle learning about the darkest places of our world, they will turn into the darkest places in us.” And always, there was her faith. “I find God in suffering,” she wrote.
Around that time, she had taken up the cause that would ultimately take her life. Kayla became interested in the plight of Syrian refugees, and she went to Turkey to help them. In an interview with the Prescott (Arizona) Daily Courier in May 2013, months before she was kidnapped in Syria, she said, “When Syrians hear I’m an American, they ask, ‘Where is the world?' All I can do is cry with them, because I don’t know.” In the same interview, she vowed: “For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal.”
Kayla did not have long. A year later, she was writing to her family from captivity in Syria. “I have a lot of fight left inside of me,” she wrote. “I am not breaking down and I will not give in no matter how long it takes.”
It’s our task as her countrymen to carry on that fight and to pursue her tormenters to the gates of hell. But Kayla, who taught her captors how to make paper peace birds, probably wouldn’t have cared for vengeance.
“The hope of our reunion is the source of my strength,” she wrote her family. “Do not fear for me, continue to pray as will I and by God’s will we will be together soon.”
Kayla, we will all be together again, soon enough. Until then, thank you for leaving this world better than you found it.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.