Image: Aijalon Gomes, Jacqueline McCarthy
Winslow Townson  /  AP
Aijalon Gomes reaches for his mother, Jacqueline McCarthy, after arriving at Logan International Airport in Boston on Friday from North Korea, where he had been held since January. Former President Jimmy Carter flew to Pyongyang to help win his release.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/27/2010 3:08:39 PM ET 2010-08-27T19:08:39

An American held captive for seven months in North Korea stepped off a plane in his hometown Friday, looking thin but joyful as he hugged the former president who had helped win his release and family and friends surrounded him in a group embrace.

Aijalon Gomes was accompanied by former President Jimmy Carter, who had flown to Pyongyang to negotiate his freedom. Gomes, who had been teaching English in South Korea, was imprisoned and sentenced to eight years' hard labor for crossing into the North from China on Jan. 25 for unknown reasons.

North Korea's state-run news agency reported last month that Gomes had attempted suicide, leading his family to ask for his release on humanitarian grounds. North Korea said this week it would release Gomes to Carter if the former president came to get him.

Gomes hugged Carter and then his mother before his loved ones encircled him, praying and waving their hands skyward while two people held a banner behind them that read: "Welcome home. Salvation is ours."

In a statement released earlier Friday, the family thanked Carter and said it felt blessed to welcome Gomes home after what it called "a long, dark and difficult period."

"I'm just joyful and grateful that my son is home, and thank President Jimmy Carter for making sure that he was home safely," Gomes' mother, Jacqueline McCarthy, said as she left her home for the airport. "I thank God, I thank God, for everything everyone has done for us."

The family also thanked the North Korean government "for caring for Aijalon during his darkest days, then agreeing to release him on humanitarian grounds."

The statement requested privacy so Gomes could recover from the ordeal, saying that although he was returning home, "the journey towards healing really just begins today." The family passed by media microphones at the airport without commenting.

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In Washington, the State Department welcomed the news of Gomes' release, saying officials are "relieved that he will soon be safely reunited with his family," spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

Image: Jimmy Carter, Aijalon Gomes
AP
Jimmy Carter and Aijalon Gomes prepare to leave Pyongyang, North Korea.

Aijalon Gomes (pronounced EYE'-jah-lahn GOHMZ') grew up the inner-city Boston neighborhood of Mattapan, then headed to college at Bowdoin in Maine before going to South Korea to teach several years after graduating.

Gomes was the fourth American in a year arrested for trespassing in North Korea, which fought the U.S. during the 1950-53 Korean War and does not have diplomatic relations with Washington.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il granted Carter's request to "leniently forgive" Gomes, the state news agency reported Friday.

Journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee were arrested last March and released only after former President Bill Clinton made a similar trip to Pyongyang to plead for their freedom.

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It was unclear what prompted Gomes to enter the repressive nation. He may have been emulating fellow Christian Robert Park, who was detained after he crossed into North Korea in December to highlight its human rights record, said Jo Sung-rae, a South Korean human rights advocate who met with Gomes. Park was expelled some 40 days later after issuing an apology carried by North Korean state media.

Gomes attended rallies in Seoul in January calling for Park's release and was arrested in North Korea just two weeks later.

Gomes' background
Gomes grew up in an apartment in Boston's Mattapan neighborhood, long a haven for immigrants and now heavily populated by African-Americans and people from Caribbean nations. In high school, he worked after school at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. as part of a jobs programs that aimed to steer students toward college.

Karen Hinds, who coordinated the program, kept in touch with Gomes, and called him as "a very personable, very likable, very intelligent young man, and very dedicated. ... And as he got older, he was extremely dedicated to his faith."

Gomes graduated high school in 1997 and, with some encouragement from Hinds, headed to Bowdoin College, a small school in Maine that she attended.

Nate Vinton, a sportswriter in New York City, took classes with Gomes, including creative writing, and remembered him as polite, earnest and with a touch of shyness that quickly vanished during conversation. Vinton also saw hints of Gomes' religious conviction.

"He talked admiringly of the Bible as a piece of literature in a class that we took together, which was unusual at that school in that place and time," Vinton said. "That stood out, for sure."

'Really sweet and positive guy'
Gomes was an enthusiastic and good-humored member of Bowdoin's student-run theater group and worked with Woodbury, now a college professor in California, on major roles in "Pippin" and bit parts in "Cabaret."

Bowdoin graduate Zach Tabacco said he would occasionally hang out with Gomes, whom he met through friends.

"He was a really sweet and positive guy," Tabacco said. "He wasn't wild by any means, but he definitely had a stronger personality. ... I can believe that if he thought something was right, he's going to do what he can to defend that and to support that."

Gomes moved to South Korea to teach English in the past year or so, Hinds said. Friend and colleague Marshalette Wise said Gomes was unfailingly professional, even outside work, where she saw him wear only slacks, dress shirts and bow ties. She said he was always friendly, helping new teachers become acclimated and assisting her in a move to a new job 90 minutes away.

As word of his possible release spread this week, members of a Facebook group called "Save Aijalon Gomes!" expressed relief and optimism that his ordeal would soon end.

"He is an excellent human being and a joy to know," group member Karen Hinds said in a post Tuesday. "God has kept him."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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