Tales of Bessman: Marla, Kayla and Emily

“To have a job where you can make things better for people? That’s a blessing. Why would I do anything else?”

The words of Marla Ruzicka, an angel and a saint. Her death April 16, 2005 from a suicide car bombing on the Baghdad Airport Road has haunted me to this day and for all tomorrows.

“We are heartbroken to share that we’ve received confirmation that Kayla Jean Mueller, has lost her life,” Kayla’s family said in a statement released yesterday. “Kayla was a compassionate and devoted humanitarian. She dedicated the whole of her young life to helping those in need of freedom, justice, and peace.”

Kayla was 26. Another vibrant young woman full of life and hope, who could have stayed here or gone anywhere else but there—where they risked and gave all on behalf of those so very less fortunate. Beauty in its truest.

Marla was 28.

“It’s rare anybody in a lifetime can accomplish what she did, and she did it in just a couple years,” Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said wen she died. Leahy had pushed through a $20 million compensation package for civilians injured accidentally by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq. “She was a champion I would follow anywhere.”

A striking, smiling California blond, Marla could “talk, smile and bust her way into all the meetings she needed–with Afghans, Iraqis, U.S. military and U.S. Embassy people,” recalled a journalist who had met her in Kabul. I mentioned her to my friend Matt, a Green Beret sniper in Iraq who later did security work there for Halliburton, and he had been so touched by her that he hung her portrait on his wall.

I was so taken that for the only time in my career, I came up with a charity CD concept in her memory. Of course it didn’t get very far, though had I known what I was doing, it would have been great. I’m sure I could have gotten Elvis Costello, ZZ Top, John Mellencamp and a number of other major names had I gone to them. The only one I mentioned it to was Ashford & Simpson: “Anything you want from us,” said Valerie, who, it should be said, always helped anyone who asked for anything, along with Nick, of course.

I had a friend at Rounder whom I called, and he was into it, too. So now I had to actually sit down and figure out how to do it. Luckily my first email went to Danny Goldberg, not only a music business luminary who’s served as personal manager, major label president, PR person and journalist, but a celebrated liberal as well.

If anyone knew how to do such a thing, it would be Danny, and sure enough, Danny told me I had little chance of putting anything togethe that would make any real money, and every chance of putting together one that would lose an awful lot of it—even with major artist donations.

I only wish I could say it’s the thought that counts.

And now, Kayla.

“Kayla dedicated her life to helping others in need at home and around the world,” President Obama said yesterday. “In Prescott, Arizona, she volunteered at a women’s shelter and worked at an HIV/AIDS clinic. She worked with humanitarian organizations in India, Israel, and the Palestinian territories, compelled by her desire to serve others. Eventually, her path took her to Turkey, where she helped provide comfort and support to Syrian refugees forced to flee their homes during the war. Kayla’s compassion and dedication to assisting those in need shows us that even amongst unconscionable evil, the essential decency of humanity can live on.”

Lest we forget, Obama added, “[Kayla] represents what is best about America, and expressed her deep pride in the freedoms that we Americans enjoy, and that so many others strive for around the world. She said: ‘Here we are. Free to speak out without fear of being killed, blessed to be protected by the same law we are subjected to, free to see our families as we please, free to cross borders and free to disagree. We have many people to thank for these freedoms and I see it as an injustice not to use them to their fullest.’”

Kayla had been held hostage by the Islamic State in Syria. The U.S. government confirmed her death yesterday, though details have yet to be made known.

“On this day, we take comfort in the fact that the future belongs not to those who destroy, but rather to the irrepressible force of human goodness that Kayla Mueller shall forever represent,” said Obama.

When Marla died, Rolling Stone hailed her as “perhaps the most famous American aid worker to die in any conflict of the past 10 or 20 years. Though a novice in life–she had less than four years of professional humanitarian experience–her death resonated far beyond the tightly knit group of war junkies and policymakers who knew her. She stands as a youthful representative of a certain kind of not-yet-lost American idealism, and darkly symbolic of what has gone so tragically wrong in Iraq.”

The Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), which Marla founded, continues its focus on helping civilians caught in the midst of armed conflict.
Here’s another quote from Marla: “Even though we couldn’t stop the war, I discovered that I could be involved in the movement for peace and justice. We are all victims of war, and we all count.”

I found these quotes on the website of The Emily Fund for a Better World, along with another quote: “Every act of compassion makes a difference for a more peaceful, just and sustainable world.”

The Emily Fund, it turns out, was established to further Emily Rachel Silverstein’s “legacy of hope in action for a more peaceful, just and sustainable world, through education, mentorship and creating and disseminating educational resources to facilitate individuals and student-centered organizations to experience local and global social change through community building activities.”

Emily Rachel Silverstein, I learned, was a sensitive and caring person, who had become vegetarian and began participating in peace marches when she was 10. She wrote her first letter to the president when she was in sixth grade, and was a member of the National Honor Society, Hightstown High School Marching Band, the swim team and the Adopt a Holocaust Survivor Program.

She made the Dean’s list at Gettysburg College, where she was co-president and lived in Peace House, whose mission was to create awareness of world peace issues. She was also involved in Amnesty International, Free the Children and other social justice activities, and studied Arabic to better address her concern for women’s rights in the Muslim world. In 2009 she helped organize an antiwar demonstration—Funk the War–a few weeks before she was brutally murdered by an ex-boyfriend. A week later students participated in a week-long event called Tent City, which she helped organize in order to help bring awareness to the homelessness crisis.

Emily Rachel Silverstein was 19. I didn’t know her, or Marla, or Kayla. But I’ll never forget any of them.