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Moms of jailed Iran hikers work full-time for their release

The mothers of three Americans detained in Iran for a year have put their own careers on hold and turned to what's become a full-time job for them: attempting to secure their children's release.
Image: Fattal, Hickey and Shourd hold pictures of their children while protesting for their release with others outside the Iran Mission in New York
From left, Laura Fattal,  Cindy Hickey and Nora Shourd, the mothers of Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer, and Sarah Shourd respectively, hold pictures of their children while protesting for their release, outside the Iran Mission in New York on Friday.Mike Segar / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

PINE CITY, Minn. - Cindy Hickey was sitting in her home office last summer, preparing a receipt for a client of her animal physical therapy business when the phone rang. She picked up, then nearly hung up, thinking it was a sales call.

"Then I heard 'Baghdad' and 'embassy' and that got my attention," Hickey said. "And she told me, 'Your son Shane is believed to have been taken by Iranian authorities. That's all the information we have, we will call you as soon as we have more information.' My adrenaline peaked. My heart sank. And I immediately went into a mode of, what are we going to do to take care of this immediately?"

A year later, Hickey and the other mothers of three Americans detained in Iran since July 31, 2009, are still in that mode.

They have put their own careers on hold and turned to what's become a full-time job for them: attempting to secure their children's release from Tehran's Evin Prison in the face of espionage accusations by the Iranian government.

The three women have done hundreds of media interviews. Written untold pages of letters. Worked diplomatic channels. Organized dozens of rallies and vigils. Researched the intricacies of Iranian law and international human rights treaties. Monitored Iranian news sources. And kept in constant contact with each other and other members of their families.

But most days, they feel no closer to their goal than the day they found out their three children - Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal - had been captured.

"The frustration you feel accumulates. The powerlessness, all that stuff accumulates," Shourd's mother, Nora, said. "We're all so overwhelmed by the intensity of the work it takes to do this. We can't just keep doing this. But of course we're going to."

Hikers seized in northern Iraq
Sarah Shourd, Bauer and Fattal met as students at the University of California at Berkeley. Last summer, Bauer, 28, a freelance journalist, and Shourd, 31, an English teacher, were living in Damascus, Syria. Bauer had just finished a magazine assignment, and Shourd was planning to learn Arabic.

Fattal, 28, had been overseas as a teaching assistant with the International Honors Program since January 2009. During his visit to Damascus, the three decided to take a hiking trip in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq, according to their families.

That's where they were seized by Iranian authorities, who accuse them of illegally crossing their border. Their families believe they may have been captured on the Iraqi side of the border, and strongly deny Tehran's espionage accusations.

Like Hickey, Fattal's mother, Laura, learned of her son's capture from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. She had just finished a year of teaching at Temple University in Philadelphia and was starting to look for other positions. That's on hold.

"People ask me what is a regular day. There is no regular day," Laura Fattal, 58, said in an interview at her home in Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia.

She said she rarely makes plans in advance because she would have to break them if anything developed in Iran. She writes her son a letter daily and is in constant touch with the other moms.

Hickey, 50, phoned Nora Shourd, 61, to break the news about their children in order to spare Shourd the impersonal U.S. Embassy call. Their children had been dating, and are now engaged after Bauer proposed while in prison.

Nora Shourd, who was living in Oakland, Calif., was about to walk into a bank when her cell phone buzzed.

"I just sat on the ground," she said. "If anyone can think of hearing the worst news of their life, that's what it was like."

Finding a support network amid fading optimism
In January, she sublet her apartment and moved to Pine City, about 90 minutes north of Minneapolis, to live with Hickey and her husband. Both women, who spoke to The Associated Press in an interview this week at Hickey's home, say they provide each other unique support.

Nora Shourd is on leave from her job as a geriatric nurse, and isn't sure she'll have a job to go back to.

"You can't do both of these things at the same time," Nora Shourd said. "One suffers, and you don't want it to be the one where you're trying to get the kids out."

Even with all the hours they put in, the mothers speak of a constant fear they could be doing more. Their frustration has mounted lately. Since they were allowed a brief visit with their children in Tehran in May, there's been no further word. Iranian officials haven't letthe families' lawyer see their children, and Swiss diplomats who were allowed to visit them several times haven't been let back in.

Optimism has dimmed, too, as the months have dragged on, especially as the prospects for improved Washington-Tehran relations have deteriorated. The U.S. broke off ties with Iran after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and Switzerland handles U.S. interests in Iran.

Family members on Friday were joined by about 75 supporters outside the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York. They held mock prison bars and pitched a tent with a sign that read: "Free the hikers. 365 days."

In a statement, President Barack Obama said Friday he spoke with the mothers earlier this week and acknowledged the families' "suffering and advocacy."

"I call on the Iranian government to immediately release Sarah, Shane and Josh," Obama said. "Their unjust detention has nothing to do with the issues that continue to divide the United States and the international community from the Iranian government. This is a humanitarian imperative, as these three young people are innocent of any crime."

Nora Shourd is concerned for her daughter's health, worried she's not getting proper treatment for a gynecological condition. During their visit, she said, her daughter showed her a lump that had recently developed in her breast. She had a mammogram, but hadn't seen the results, she said.

"I feel like more can be done," Hickey said. "If enough was being done, they'd be home. The fear as a mother is that it's not as important to anyone else as it is to us. No one's working as hard as we are and no one's thinking about it every second of every day like we are."