American held by ISIS moved by suffering of Syrian people

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(CNN) — Kayla Mueller has made helping people her life’s work.

After graduating from college in 2009, she traveled to northern India, Palestinian territories and Israel to assist humanitarian groups, her family said through a spokeswoman. She then went to Syria to help people whose lives had been torn apart by war, especially children.

“Syrians are dying by the thousands and they’re fighting just to talk about the rights we have,” the humanitarian worker told The Daily Courier, her hometown paper in Prescott, Arizona, in 2013. “For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal.”

ISIS said in an online posting Friday that a female American it was holding had died in a Jordanian airstrike on Raqqa. The Mueller family spokeswoman says ISIS took her captive in August 2013. (CNN had not previously named her at the request of her family, which is concerned for her safety.)

Mueller’s parents said they hoped she is still alive and implored those holding her captive to reach out to them privately.

“You told us that you treated Kayla as your guest, as your guest her safety and well-being remains your responsibility,” Carl and Marsha Mueller said in a statement.

They said they have followed the captives’ demands and kept her name out of the media.

“After going to extraordinary efforts to keep Kayla’s name out of the media for so long, by securing the cooperation of journalists throughout the world, her name was released today.”

Jordan quickly cast doubt on the ISIS claim, calling it a PR stunt designed to create dissension among forces battling ISIS. A spokeswoman said the U.S. State Department could not confirm the ISIS reports and had not seen anything that corroborates the claim.

ISIS provided a photo of a collapsed building where it said Mueller died, but provided no “proof of life.”

Dedicated to volunteerism

Mueller, 26, grew up in Prescott, a town of about 40,000 people 100 miles north of Phoenix. She showed an early inclination for travel and humanitarian work, according to a September 2007 profile in The Daily Courier.

“I love cultures and language and learning about people’s cultures,” Mueller, then 19, said in the article.

Before going to Northern Arizona University, she worked for the Save Darfur coalition, wrote letters to members of Congress, took part in environmental causes and was honored with a local award for activism, the article said.

“I always feel that no matter how much I give I always get back more though these projects,” she said.

Mueller continued her activism at NAU.

Carol Thompson, a politics and international affairs professor there, got to know Mueller working with her — as fellow anti-war activists — to make sure that returning veterans were welcomed back to the community.

“Well beyond the classroom, she was a peacemaker,” said Thompson.

After graduating from college in 2009, Mueller became a globetrotter.

She spent two years living and working with humanitarian groups in northern India, Israel and Palestinian territories, according to the family spokeswoman. In Israel, she volunteered at the African Refugee Development Center.

Upon returning to Arizona in 2011, Mueller volunteered in a women’s shelter and worked at Northland Cares, an HIV/AIDS clinic, helping to facilitate events and providing local coordination for World AIDS Day, the family spokeswoman said.

“She was truly a remarkable young woman,” said Northland Cares Director Tricia Goffena-Beyer. “Our thoughts and prayers are with the family.”

She traveled to France in December 2011 to work as an au pair so she could learn French in order to work in Africa, noted her family’s spokeswoman.

‘All I can do is cry with them’

After a year in France, she traveled to the Turkish/Syrian border to work with the Danish Refugee Council and the humanitarian organization Support to Life, which assisted families forced to flee their homes, the spokeswoman said.

On a trip home in 2013, she told the Kiwanis Club in Prescott about her work in the Mideast, saying she often drew, painted and played with Syrian children in refugee camps, according to the Daily Courier. Her father is a club member, the paper said.

She described helping reunite a man with a 6-year-old relative after their refugee camp in Turkey was bombed.

“This story is not rare in Syria,” the newspaper quoted her as saying. “This is the reality for Syrians two and a half years on.

“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 a YouTube video produced in October 2011, before the rise of ISIS, Mueller said she supported a sit-in that protested the Syrian regime.

“I am in solidarity with the Syrian people,” she said. ” I reject the brutality and killing that the Syrian authorities are committing against the Syrian people.”

Taken captive in August 2013

ISIS took Mueller captive in the summer of 2013 after she visited a Spanish MSF (Doctors Without Borders) hospital, according to the family spokeswoman. However, she did not work for Doctors Without Borders, the organization said in a statement issued Friday.

“On August 3, 2013, a technician sent by a company contracted by MSF arrived at one of the organization’s structures in Aleppo, Syria, to perform repairs,” the medical aid organization said. “Unbeknownst to the MSF team, Kayla, a friend of the technician’s, was accompanying him. Because additional time was required to carry out the repair work, the technician and Kayla were harbored overnight at the MSF hospital in Aleppo, due to safety concerns.

“Upon completion of the repair work on August 4, the MSF team organized transportation for Kayla and the technician to the Aleppo bus station, from where they were to depart for Turkey. Kayla’s detention occurred during the drive to the bus station.”

Last May, the Mueller family received confirmation their daughter had been taken hostage, the family spokeswoman said. The information provided “proof of life.” The family hasn’t said whether they know how she was treated.

U.S. troops may have come close to rescuing Mueller last July when they staged a daring raid at a location inside Syria in an attempt to find journalist James Foley, who ISIS executed in August, and other hostages.

One U.S. official says they found specific evidence the hostages had been there, including writings on the cell walls. A law enforcement official says hair strands found at the site are believed to have belonged to Mueller.

In a note to Kayla Mueller’s family last summer, ISIS said it had grown tired of waiting and demanded 5 million Euros by August 13, according to a source close to the family. It’s unknown whether that execution date was kept by ISIS.

Mueller’s parents have requested privacy. Local authorities are helping. CNN affiliate KNXV showed multiple police vehicles blocking the road where they live.

The family spokeswoman asked journalists to be careful in their reporting, saying “The family of Kayla Mueller requests that media cautiously report on her background, work and current situation and limit speculation on her situation and consider the implications for her security before publishing.”

When asked what kept their daughter going, Mueller’s family said she would have replied, “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.”

Thompson said that, while she is the professor, it was Kayla who taught her that “peace with justice involves constant struggle and sacrifice. ”

“We can honor Kayla most by asking all the parties involved to seek understanding of difference, of those with whom we most disagree,” Thompson said. “Thank you Kayla, for teaching your professors and many others. We stand very humbled in your light.”

CNN’s Barbara Starr, Allison Brennan and Nic Robertson contributed to this report.

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