The 26-year-old Arizona woman ISIS has been holding hostage in Syria devotes her life to making others' better — a passion she's sustained since childhood, a longtime friend told NBC 7 on Friday, as a portrait of the humanitarian aid worker began to emerge.
ISIS militants claimed Friday that Kayla Jean Mueller had been killed in a Jordanian airstrike — a claim that the U.S. has not confirmed, and that many experts cast doubt upon. Mueller is believed to be the last American hostage held by the terrorist group, after three others were executed.
Mueller has always focused her energy on things outside herself, Katlyn Sulltrop, a friend since elementary school, told NBC 7 on Friday, describing her friend's compassion and also her zany side.
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She remembered taking a songwriting workshop with Mueller in high school. While others wrote about classic teen angst, Mueller's songs centered on her work at an elder care facility. "It was kind of like a very powerful song, about just the way she felt about the people she was caring for at this home, and the connection she had with some of the other people," Sulltrop said. "It was really, really awesome."
The two participated in a performance arts group together, and the last time they saw each other was at a friend's wedding. "I have all these pictures of like, Kayla with her tongue out, like kind of just crazy," said Sulltrop. "And I just remember it was a really good time, and she definitely is a very caring, a very generous, a very wonderful person."
Mueller grew up in Prescott, Arizona, where she attended Tri City College Prep and devoted her time to writing letters and calling her Congress members to support the Save Darfur Coalition, according to her local paper. She continued to join in protests and support humanitarian causes while studying international affairs at Northern Arizona University.
Mueller's drive to serve led her to work with humanitarian aid organizations in India, Israel and Palestine after her 2009 graduation, according to a statement from her family's representative. In 2011, she returned to Arizona to work at an HIV/AIDS clinic and a women's shelter before moving to France to be an au pair.
While there, Mueller expressed solidarity with the Syrian people in a YouTube video, NBC News reported. Though her goal was to work in Africa, the family representative says, she soon decided to help Syrian refugees at the Turkey-Syria border in December 2012.
Mueller signed on with the "Support to Life" humanitarian aid group and the Danish Refugee Council, but on Aug. 4, 2013, she was taken captive in Aleppo, Syria, as she was leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital.
In May of last year, ISIS contacted Mueller's family, confirmed she was being held hostage and demanded $6.6 million in ransom for her freedom, according to NBC News. In July, Army Delta Force commandos unsuccessfully tried to rescue her and other hostages in the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, U.S. officials told NBC News.
Until Friday, when ISIS claimed Mueller was dead, her family had wanted her identity kept private, for fear that it would put her at risk. Friday night, her parents broke their silence and said in a statement addressed to her captors that they hoped for her safe release.
"This news leaves us concerned, yet, we are still hopeful that Kayla is alive," they said. "You told us that you treated Kayla as your guest, as your guest her safety and well-being remains your responsibility."
Sulltrop told NBC 7 she had been shocked at the news of her friend's capture in Syria, because Mueller is "not the kind of person something like this should happen to."
"She really just wanted to help people, and that's kind of what her whole life is about," Sulltrop said. "She's like a really compassionate, amazing human being, and I really hope that wherever she is, she's OK."