Before finding her way to Syria and being caught up and killed in the war there, ISIS hostage Kayla Mueller fought to preserve the famed San Francisco Peaks from desecration by artificial snow made with treated sewage wastewater. As news of her death broke earlier this week, her friends and fellow activists remembered her as kind, caring and committed to action.
"Kayla was a wonderful supporter of the Peaks struggle,” said Klee Benally, who has been at the forefront of the fight for the mountains.
Mueller's involvement with Save the Peaks began when she was a teenager, according to a website, For Kayla, set up by friends to chronicle her activism and preserve the 26-year-old’s legacy.
“Kayla worked with Save the Peaks in high school and continued to support the campaign in years following,” the website says.
She went on from there to work drawing attention to violence in Darfur, Sudan, among many other causes.
“She was the director of the Save Darfur group at the university,” said Aaron Levy, who attended Northern Arizona University with Mueller in 2008 and first heard her speak at a meeting of Associated Students for Women’s Issues. “She had spoken regarding sexual violence in Darfur and Africa at large, had briefed the group and provided direction on what we, as a student group, could do.”
The two developed a friendship over the years, working on ecological and sexual violence in the Congo and other issues. As part of that shared action, they attended rallies and protests for the Save the Peaks movement, which fought unsuccessfully to stop the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort’s owners from spraying reclaimed sewage onto a group of sacred mountains to create artificial snow.
“We all saw the violence against the mountain as a further gesture of colonization, capitalism and violence against people,” Levy said. “It broke Kayla’s heart to understand that the claims of the Diné were not being listened to. Kayla cared about people who were being silenced. She saw herself as a human, and could not stand idly by while other people were having their rights infringed upon.”
When the war in Syria broke out, Mueller was adamant about going there to help, Levy said. She provided aid to refugees, and crossed the border to chronicle the war.
“Kayla saw herself also as a witness,” Levy said, recalling his last communication with her, weeks before she was kidnapped. “She was trying to describe to me what a SCUD missile sounded like when it hit a target, and how damaged her psyche was by what she saw.”
It was indeed her personal spiritual journey that brought her to this pass, For Kayla noted. She sought out spiritual teachings and even spent time studying with renowned Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh at Plum Village, the monastery he founded in France. Right after college, Mueller also traveled to Dharamsala, India, where she encountered the Dalai Lama and worked with Tibetan refugees, according to the Arizona Republic.
“Kayla grounds herself in these teachings as she has dedicated herself to the most painful parts of the world,” said the website, which was launched during her captivity. “She has always remained strong and willing, even in the most trying circumstances, as she has offered her compassion to those suffering under oppression and injustice.”
In keeping with that, Levy remembered Mueller as a person with a huge heart, who saw all cases of oppression through the same lens.
“I went back and read through some of our Facebook messaging. She almost needed 100 extra hearts to be able to contain the amount of compassion that she had for other people,” he said. “She threw off all the mantles of privilege and went directly to Syria and made herself vulnerable, so she could help people.”
This spirit was encapsulated in the words of Mueller herself, even as she walks on.
“I find God in the suffering eyes reflected in mine,” she wrote, explaining her work to friends. “If this is how you are revealed to me, this is how I will forever seek you.”
With reporting from Anne Minard.