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Two months before she went missing, Kayla Mueller posted a picture on her Facebook page—half a dozen kids, giving the peace sign. Along with the snapshot, one word: "Joy."
That was the last public post the 26-year-old aid worker made on her Facebook page before being kidnapped in August 2013 by ISIS militants in Syria. Her posts, written under a pseudonym, document her travels over the past five years, showing a life of adventure and humanitarian work that spanned the globe. "Freedom is an ever-evolving bird with ever-expanding wings," she wrote in one post from Israel.
Last week, almost a year and half after her abduction, ISIS militants announced that Mueller had died in a Jordanian airstrike. Her death has been confirmed, but the airstrike claim is in question.
Those who knew Mueller have hailed her as a citizen of the world and an advocate for peace. "She saw injustice and suffering and she did what she could," says Kathleen Day, who heads the United Christian Ministry at Northern Arizona University, where Mueller attended college. "She was doing things back in middle school: She volunteered with grandparents. She cared for veterans. In college, she traveled to Guatemala. She allowed herself to be impacted by so many diverse people and ideas."
After graduating in 2009 with a political science degree, Mueller took that experience with her around the world (opens in new tab), volunteering in India and Israel, working in an HIV clinic in Arizona, and most recently, traveling to the border of Turkey and Syria to work with groups that provide support to Syrian refugees. She was kidnapped in Syria while reportedly accompanying a friend on a job for Doctors Without Borders.
"She lived so simply," Day says. "Kayla did not want to buy something new, ever. She made a dollar last forever. She had her guitar, her book, her good heart, and her humor. When I picture her, I see her sitting cross-legged on the ground, her head thrown back, laughing." Day confirmed that the Facebook posts in this story came from Mueller.
Mueller found beauty in Syria. In April 2013, she posted this Facebook shot of a serene countryside scene in the war-torn nation:
In December 2012, another shot from Syria:
In April of that year, she shared a shot of a Buddha sculpture and wrote about peace, quoting a poet named Thich Nhat Hanh: "In Buddhist iconography, there is a Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, with a thousand arms and thousand hands and one eye in the palm of each hand. The thousand arms represent action and the eye in each hand represents understanding. When you understand a situation or a person, what you do is help without creating more suffering. With an eye in hand, you will know how to practice true nonviolence."
In September 2010, a mysterious one-line observation: "Sometimes it just doesn't make sense."
That same month, another one-liner: "Those who build walls are pretending that forever they can defend them."
In August of that year, she posted lyrics to the song "Say Hey," typing, "Seems like everywhere I go, the more I see the less I know. But I know one thing, that I love you." Her brother replied, "We love you too little sis!"
On her birthday that same month, she said, "Thanks for the b-day wishes everyone! Spent the day at the sea...that's a good place to be on your continuation day I think."
She was doing volunteer work in Israel at the time, posting: "Spent the day swimming in the Mediterranean sea and biking ALL over my new friend Tel Aviv! This city has much to offer me, what do I have for it? Freedom is an ever-evolving bird with ever-expanding wings...let's do it."
Her posts are peppered with humor, like this quip from May 2010: "One learns true skills in water conservation when one lives with no running water."
Before flying to Israel she wrote: "$120 for a flight to Israel you say??? Why yes, yes that sounds very interesting indeed…"
In May 2010 in Dharamsala, India, she quoted an anonymous Tibetan poet: "It is impossible for a fine strand of grass to repay the benefit it receives from the sunlight in all seasons...but sunshine is never biased."
That same month, she discussed her volunteer work for a center called the Tibet Hope Center, saying she felt "overwhelmed with blessings, adventure, love, sorrow, hope...these Tibetans are amazing people..."
Also that month: "Ate breakfast a stone's throw away from the Dalai Lama this morning!" She said she was "simply in tears as his holiness led a temple of Tibetans in prayer for victims of the earthquake in Tibet...one of the most intense spiritual experiences of my life...wow."
Earlier that year she described getting over a "rendezvous with Typhoid" and discussed plans to go to India to teach and "dance on the banks of the GANGES!!"
January of that year brought some rough days: "Spent the day in bed reading. Apparently getting measles, mumps, rubella and polio vaccines all in the same day didn't agree with me." She joked, "The nurse told me I wouldn't feel sick...yeah right!! I was dripping in sweat just a few minutes ago...my body is fighting off invaders!!! HIIIIYAAAAHHHHH!!!! TAKE THAT POLIO, RUBELLA, MEASLES and MUMPS!!!!!"
Over the years, she posted headlines on world news and human rights—conflict in Darfur, poverty in Haiti. News that the Obama administration would support an inquiry into war crimes in Myanmar "put a smile on my face today," she said in 2010.
She spoke of adventures including a dinner date with a Brahman priest, prompting her to think, "wait. wha???" There was even a New Year's ride in a limo owned by the guitarist Slash of Guns N' Roses. "Slash was not in the limo...sadly," she said. "BUT IT WAS STILL REALLY COOL!"
And she tried to help a stray cat find its way home, posting: "Found s/he on the corner of Benton and Leroux...I know it's not a street cat though cause s/he soooo friendly and clean and it looks like the claws were just recently cut as well...calling around trying to find the owner…"
In one of her first updates on the page, in November 2009, as she began her round-the-world journey, she posted this:
Her response: "Well at least I'm not dying to get married and I don't plan on that desire surfacing for a while...if ever...ha! Wise words…"
Today, some of Mueller's friends are busy swapping their Facebook portraits with shots of owls—creatures Mueller loved—in her memory.
Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for major publications around the world. She is the author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.
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