"The Hiker Mom" Who Never Lost Hope
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Laura Fattal at home with a photo of Josh and Shane stepping off an Omani Royal Air Force plane in Muscat, Oman, after they were released on bail
On September 21, 2011, Philadelphia native Josh Fattal and his friend and cellmate, Shane Bauer, leaped from a private jet and into the embrace of their families on an Omani runway after 26 months of captivity in an Iranian prison. President Obama celebrated their freedom: “I welcome the release of Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal from detention in Iran and am very pleased that they are being reunited with their loved ones,” he declared. “The tireless advocacy of their families over these two years has won my admiration and is now coming to an end with Josh and Shane back in their arms. All Americans join their families and friends in celebrating their long-awaited return home.”
Unbeknownst to Laura Fattal, she and her son Josh began that fateful day of July 31, 2009, on a strikingly similar note, despite being half a world away from one another. Josh was with Bauer and friend Sarah Shourd hiking in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, where they had entered from Turkey three days earlier. At home in Elkins Park, Laura had plans to meet a friend for a hike at the Schuylkill Center in nearby Roxborough. “We went to tea afterward in Manayunk, and after about 45 minutes I said, ‘I really have to go home now.’ There was no real reason, the kids were away and my husband was working, but something was calling me. I had an intuition that I had to go home, and I was right.” On the family’s voicemail was chilling confirmation of a mother’s instinct from the United States Embassy in Baghdad. “I called and discovered that the Iranian government was holding my son Josh and his friends in custody.” Laura’s life changed in an instant.
“When I got the phone call from Baghdad—and I don’t frequently get calls from Baghdad,” she laughed, “they said, ‘Would you like to talk to the other mothers?’ and all three of us in separate conversations with the US State Department officials said yes. They put Cindy (Shane’s mother), Nora (Sarah’s mother), and me together the same day.” The relationship between these mothers would grow to sustain them and their families through the tumultuous journey they were about to take together. “The ‘hiker families,’ as we became known, were always united. We had a single focus: to gain the release of our children from an unjust detention.”
Through a stroke of odd luck, Laura had recently finished a one-year position as an instructor at Temple University and was considering her options for the fall term that July. “My PhD is in curriculum and instruction with a specialty in art education, and I have worked professionally in this field for 25 years. When this crisis hit I had a new job: I became the mother of the hiker, and my job was getting my younger son home.” Her older son, Alex, was working toward a PhD in anthropology at Harvard and doing research in Sweden in the summer of 2009. He dropped his doctoral work and returned home to join his mother in securing Josh’s freedom.
|Laura Fattal, Cindy Hickey, and Nora Shourd protesting outside Iran’s mission in New York|
In this new role Laura would start her day checking Iranian websites and news agencies such as Press TV and the Tehran Times and then looking at international news about Josh, Sarah, and Shane from Google alerts. Three times a week Laura and the hiker families would have conference calls with the State Department, and then there were endless phone calls between family members throughout the week. “We all decided after two and a half months of Josh, Shane, and Sarah’s detention to enlist the support of numerous foreign embassies in Washington. This required multiple trips to the capital to meet with diplomats. One of the first embassies we went to was the Sultanate of Oman, which turned out to be the pivotal country in securing the release of our kids.” Laura explains, “The Swiss embassy has the official role of being the protecting power of the US in Iran, so we were in frequent contact with them. Asking for humanitarian help from foreign countries is not an unusual thing to do. Countries help each other all the time. Diplomats would give us great hope and reassurance throughout the next 26 months. I had a Rolodex with 60 embassies’ addresses and contacts.”
Laura learned quickly how to navigate the worlds of diplomacy and the media to get and keep her cause in the spotlight. “I took a very proactive stance along with Cindy and Nora to not only speak with foreign embassies, ecumenical leaders, and organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, but to reach out to international media. The campaign brought me in front of ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, as well as Oprah. I was regularly on local radio stations, and Michael Matza at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Pat Ciarrocchi at KYW kept Josh’s story in the forefront of our local news.” The women also began their website, freethehikers.org, in August 2009, and Laura became savvy using social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook to spread the word of all political developments.
The captives were held at Evin Prison, a notorious political detention center in the northwest section of Tehran. At a press conference a few days after his 2011 release, Josh told reporters, “Many times—too many times—we heard the screams of other prisoners being beaten, and there was nothing we could do to help them.” The families lived in fear of their children being maltreated or tortured. Laura, Cindy, and Nora applied for visas to Iran in January 2010, and with the help of the Swiss government they were granted entrance that May. Laura remembers, “When we arrived in Tehran we were met by Livia Leu Agosti, the Swiss ambassador to Iran who was a great support to us during our stay.” The mothers and their children were reunited for two days at the Esteghlal International Hotel. The trip helped to humanize the Americans to everyday Iranians. “Women came up to Cindy, Nora, and me in the North Tehran Market and said, ‘We want the best for your children. We are sorry your children are in prison and we feel very bad for you. Inshallah, God willing, things will work out.’ The Iranian people are a good people being ruled by a government that is very suspicious of anything American. This is the problem.”
On September 14, Sarah was released from Iranian custody on humanitarian grounds—though it was widely reported in the press that it was due to her declining health—but not before $500,000 bail was secured. At the time of Sarah’s release all three were charged with illegal entry into Iran and espionage. In mid-September tensions arose between Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, who had made a vow to release the young men before his attendance at the United Nations General Assembly in New York the following week, and the Iranian judiciary, who rejected this.
For the families it was another excruciating wait as the trial date was pushed from November 6, 2010, to February 6, 2011, and then to May 11, 2011. When on May 11 Josh and Shane did not appear in court for their trial, Laura decided it was time to take action in the form of rolling hunger strikes. “Cindy and I started the hunger strike because Josh and Shane’s trial was postponed from May 11. A follow-up trial should take a day. The Iranians postponed it for another three months.” The hunger strikes were adopted by each of the hikers, their families, Iranian American groups, former Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt, and peace activists Cindy Sheehan and Ela Gandhi.
photography by ben weldon (fattal, top); getty images
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