Kayla Mueller (Photo: Mueller family)
After Mueller moved to Turkey to serve refugees fleeing a war-torn region, she spent time with a Syrian boyfriend.
When the aid worker crossed into a dangerous part of Syria in August 2013, she was traveling to a hospital with someone described as a friend.
And after Mueller was taken hostage by Islamic State militants on that trip, a man who had been with her returned to her captors and put himself at risk in an effort to win her freedom.
Now it is clear that each account refers to the same man: a now-33-year-old Syrian photographer who worked for years to document the civil war in his country and was known to her family and friends as Mueller’s boyfriend, and at times even as her fiance or husband.
Interviews with a family spokeswoman and half a dozen friends and acquaintances around the world outline the Arizona woman’s last months of freedom: Mueller’s travels with her boyfriend, her understanding of the dangers posed in the region and her relentless determination to reach the downtrodden, in Turkish refugee camps and in Syria itself.
And though the man has not done public interviews about Mueller, the social-media accounts in his name show gut-wrenching farewells to her, as well as harrowing posts that describe him being freed twice from Islamic State prisons.
The interviews and public social-media posts paint a picture of a man who cared deeply for Mueller and became ensnared in a place that has descended into anarchy.
The Arizona Republic is withholding the name of Mueller’s boyfriend out of caution for his safety. At least one friend says the name is an identity he assumed to lessen the risk of reporting in Syria.
A family spokeswoman confirmed that the man was Mueller’s boyfriend and that her family has been in touch with him, though they have not met.
The man, via Facebook messages, declined requests to speak with The Republic for this story. But he posted a poignant letter to Mueller on Facebook on Wednesday, the day after her family announced it had received proof from the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, of the 26-year-old’s death.
“Dear Kayla, I’m not writing her to say goodbye, this is a thank you. Thank you for coming into my life and giving me joy, thank you for loving me and receiving my love in return,” he wrote above a photo of Mueller relaxing on a beach, smiling and clutching a Cookie Monster doll to her cheek.
“(Y)ou supported me in everything I did,” he wrote, “even if it was extremely stupid. … I’m writing to tell you I’m sorry about so many things. I’m sorry I didn’t take better care of you. I’m sorry I didn’t try harder to find the words, to tell you what I was feeling. And how much I loved you..”
Those who knew the couple describe them as driven to see the conflict from as close a vantage point as possible, but also finding time to unwind, meet with friends and go out in cosmopolitan Istanbul.
Mueller, who grew up in Prescott, Ariz., and by 2013 had volunteered to help impoverished communities in Israel and India, sought to help Syrian children whose families had fled the bloodshed, according to those who met her. Her boyfriend, in addition to his photojournalism, was an activist and filmmaker who assisted foreigners covering the war.
Those who met the couple described them to The Republic as intrepid but also noted worries for their safety, stressing that even being near the Syrian border at that time was tremendously risky.
There are differing accounts of how many times Mueller might have crossed the border, but she did it at least once, on the first weekend in August 2013. The couple were kidnapped less than 48 hours later.
The Rev. Kathleen Day, a pastor at Northern Arizona University who knew Mueller well, said the young woman was close friends with the Syrian man and had known him for many years.
Day spoke highly of the man.
“He’s a passionate person who really cares about the suffering in Syria,” she said. “He has done a lot of humanitarian work with Kayla. They were very close.”
A mutual friend, Amr Ahmed, told The Republic that about five years ago he met Mueller and the photographer in Cairo. Later they went out together when he moved to Istanbul.
A family spokeswoman said Mueller met the man who would become her boyfriend in 2010 on a brief vacation in Cairo, and they kept in touch for two years by Skype and e-mail.
In December 2012, Mueller moved to Turkey and began searching for aid organizations to join.
She later became a consultant with a program run by Support to Life and worked for a group that collaborated with the Danish Refugee Council, according to statements from those agencies.
Syrian television journalist Mustafa Abbas, whose family fled the country and who now covers the conflict from Turkey, met Mueller and her boyfriend at a conference about handling the flow of refugees. The group remained friendly.
In an interview, Abbas recalled the man introducing himself as her husband. The couple were not married, a family spokeswoman said, but she agreed that if Abbas’ recollection is accurate, it’s possible they introduced themselves that way in order to be more acceptable traveling together in a conservative culture.
Over a meal of shawarma, a traditional roasted-meat dish, Abbas chatted with the couple about the dangers facing journalists covering the civil war.
Mueller kept in touch via Facebook and Skype, Abbas said, peppering him for advice on Turkish border cities where she could help refugee children.
At one point, Mueller told Abbas she had gone into a camp in Syria, in Idlib.
Abbas said Mueller knew of the danger. He had related to her an experience covering a sarin-gas attack near Aleppo. And mutual friends at an aid organization warned Mueller against traveling into the country, Abbas said.
” ‘Don’t go to Syria. Syria is very dangerous to you. Don’t go,’ ” a friend told Abbas on Thursday that the friend had relayed to Mueller.
Mueller told other people she was eager to get closer to the Syrian border as well.
A first-person account published last week in the British Telegraph was one of the first to describe Mueller’s Syrian boyfriend and an early attempt to free her. The writer said Mueller had contacted her asking for advice on how to get into Kilis, one of the largest refugee camps in Turkey.
A few months later, two female journalists who knew Mueller’s boyfriend met the couple.
Nicole Tung, a New York-based freelance photographer, recognized Mueller when she saw the young woman’s images broadcast worldwide in recent days.
“My God,” she recalled thinking. “I met her.”
In April 2013, Tung was on assignment for Vanity Fair in Turkey and Syria. She was with Janine di Giovanni, a Vanity Fair contributing editor and Middle East editor for Newsweek, who was interviewing women who had been sexually assaulted during Syria’s civil war.
The journalists recalled their interactions with Mueller during telephone interviews withThe Republic.
The Syrian photographer had wanted to meet with di Giovanni and arranged to go for coffee at a hotel terrace in a border city.
Di Giovanni said that the photographer brought along a young woman. It was Mueller. She introduced herself as the man’s fiance.
“Her heart was in the right place,” Tung said on Wednesday in a phone interview. “But, unfortunately, being sort of fresh and new to the conflict zone, especially in a place like Syria, you run into so many different dangers.”
By the time Mueller was kidnapped in August 2013, the increasing risk from Islamic State had forced many foreign journalists, and even Syrians, to suspend travel into the country, Abbas said.
A statement from Support to Life said Mueller left Turkey to go into Syria on a weekend early in August.
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SOURCE: USA Today / The Arizona Republic
Rebekah L. Sanders and Richard Ruelas