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Families and friends hope for safe return of hikers detained in Iran

It has been nearly two months since Iranian authorities detained three Americans, all graduates of UC Berkeley, during a hiking trip in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Shane Bauer, a linguist and documentary photographer from Emeryville; Joshua Fattal, 27, an environmentalist from Cottage Grove; and Sarah Shourd, an English teacher and Oakland resident, left for their hiking trip July 31.

The three are world travelers who sought to learn about different cultures and religions, and study Arabic in Damascus, Syria. Bauer and Shourd are both freelance journalists, and Shourd even wrote for Brave New Traveler and New America Media.

According to the New York Times, the travelers were hiking in a popular area with Western tourists when they strayed over the Kurdish border into Iran. The details of their “illegal entry” are still vague, and their arrest was not confirmed until a few days later. Iran’s national l television stated that hikers were arrested for disregarding border guard’s warning.

The hikers are believed to be detained in Tehran, the capital of Iran, as this case has become another source of tension between the U.S. and Iran.

Sarah Shourd wrote about her decision to study the Middle East in a Transitions Abroad article, “Brave Eyes, Laughing Hearts: My First Encounter With Yemen”:

“I wanted my introduction to the Middle East to be memorable, and I was drawn to Yemen’s traditional culture and geographical isolation. I was also both fascinated and repelled by what little I knew of its gender dynamic,” wrote Shourd.

She even spoke about dangers to her own safety.

“Of course there were the security concerns, Westerners being kidnapped and sometimes even killed, but I decided that it was more likely I would get hit by a car while riding my bicycle at home, and bought my plane ticket. I wanted to check it out for myself.” Her article won third place for the website’s 2009 Narrative Travel Writing Contest for theme of dispelling myths, and providing reality through independent travelers.

In a recent CNN interview with international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejah was reported as saying that he was willing to push for leniency, saying, “What I can ask is that the judiciary expedites the process and gives it its full attention. … And to basically take a look at the case with maximum leniency.”

This marks a decided contrast from the remark Ahmadinejah gave reporters in Tehran on Sept. 18 that the hikers “need to be punished.”

Amanpour said she believes that Admadinejah, who was in the United States visiting the General Assembly at the U.N., intends to “pave some kind of different atmosphere” with the U.S. government.

This new update will hopefully come as relief to the captives’ families, who have yet to receive any information about the hikers, and appealed to the Iranian president during his visit to the United Nations this past Thursday.

Christine Thiers, an Oakland resident and a good friend of Sarah Shourd, spoke about what Nora Shourd must be going through during this ordeal, “I really feel for her. I wish it had never happened. I just hope this situation works out and it does not end in violence. Make it into a positive experience.”

Thiers, who has known Sarah since 2003, also talked about how she hopes that no one would forget about the hikers as the days continue to pass into the winter. “I have not heard much from the media,” she said. “My fear is that people will continue to live their lives, and be apathetic. The more they’re gone, the more it makes me worry and uneasy.”

The clock is ticking on, the home page for the cause, calculating the duration of the hiker’s captivity. The website has been helping the hikers’ families connect with activists around the world to bringing Shane, Josh, and Sarah home.

The website includes a petition and letter-writing campaign with over 358 signatures thus far, as well as means of sending letters to your governors and local politicians, and even to the hikers themselves via the Swiss embassy.

Meredith Walters, another close friend of Sarah and fellow UC Berkley graduate, talked about the work behind the website.

“Sarah’s friends are really involved at home, and have put a lot of time in helping them. I encourage people to visit the site, I know a lot of people don’t know about the hikers.”

Nora Shourd has a section dedicated to her daughter Sarah, called “Letters to Bean” (Sarah’s nickname) and writes:

“She loves being outside. In the East Bay she rode her bike everywhere, citified but hankering for that connection with the earth,” writes Ms. Shourd reminiscing about Sarah’s childhood. “I know she’s missing the sky, the rain, the wind, the stars being locked up there, and all the amazing people on the planet she loves so strongly.”

Walters, who last saw Sarah before she left for the Middle East in June 2008, had some kind words for her friends in Iran: “I love them and hope they are safe and sound. Have hope and strength, and know that a lot of people are thinking about them and working to bring them home.”

The U.S. State Department is now going through Swiss diplomats representing American interests in Iran to offer consular access to the three detainees. According to a New York Times Editorial, Iranian diplomats are scheduled to meet with U.S. diplomats next month to discuss the case.