Islamic State hostage from Arizona wanted to aid Syrian kids

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman
By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) -- A hostage at the center of a conflict involving Islamic State militants is an aid worker who grew up in Arizona and was driven by her calling to help children whose lives were ripped apart by war.

Kayla Mueller described her mission during a speech to the Prescott Kiwanis Club, where her father is a member, during a visit home in May 2013.

"For as long as I live, I will not let this suffering be normal," said Mueller, whose remarks were reported by The Daily Courier of Prescott. "It's important to stop and realize what we have, why we have it and how privileged we are. And from that place, start caring and get a lot done."

A purported statement by the Islamic State group claimed Mueller, 26, was killed in a Jordanian airstrike on Friday in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa, the extremist group's main stronghold.

The White House has "not at this time seen any evidence that corroborates" the claim, said Bernadette Meehan, the spokeswoman for President Barack Obama's National Security Council. The statement included photos allegedly of the bombed site but no images of Mueller.

"We are obviously deeply concerned by these reports," Meehan said.

Jordan has been launching airstrikes against Islamic State in response to a video released this week that shows a captive Jordanian pilot being burned to death in a cage.

Mueller's identity had not been disclosed until now out of fears for her safety. Her family said she was taken hostage by Islamic State on Aug. 4, 2013, while leaving a hospital in Syria.

The Prescott native graduated in 2009 from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff with a bachelor's degree in political science. She spent the next two years volunteering with aid groups in India, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

In 2011, she worked for one year at an HIV and AIDS clinic in Prescott. Tricia Goffena-Beyer, director of Northland Cares, said Mueller helped raise awareness of HIV and AIDS and coordinated events for things like World AIDS Day. Goffena-Beyer said she met Mueller briefly when she stopped by the clinic to say hello to former co-workers.

"I found her to be a remarkable young woman," Goffena-Beyer said. "She made a very lasting impression while she was here at the clinic."

When she wasn't at the clinic, Mueller volunteered to work the overnight shift solo at a woman's shelter, which the staff said is a difficult position to fill. Muller slept among some two dozen women and children in a dorm, counseling them as needed and opening the door for women returning to the shelter from work.

After her stint with the clinic, Mueller worked as an au pair in France. In December 2012, she decided to work with refugees at the Turkey-Syria border.

At the time of her 2013 appearance in Prescott, Mueller was working with the humanitarian aid agency Support to Life in Turkey. She spent a great deal of time working in refugee camps with Syrian children. Her activities included drawing, painting and playing with them.

Her family said in a statement that "the common thread of Kayla's life has been her quiet leadership and strong desire to serve others." The family said it would not comment further beyond the short statement it released Friday. Sheriff's deputies blocked the road leading to the family home on the outskirts of Prescott.

Months before she was taken hostage, Mueller told the Kiwanis audience that she felt compelled to act to ensure the suffering does not continue, but she felt like she "can't do enough."

Mueller also spoke of how the U.S. wasn't sending enough humanitarian relief to the region.

"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," she said.

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Associated Press Writers Brian Skoloff and Terry Tang contributed to this report.

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