Families remember their loved ones on first ever Hostage and Wrongful Detainee Day

Senior US officials, Americans who had returned from detention abroad and loved ones of those who have yet to come home gathered in front of the US State Department as a new flag was raised ahead of the nation’s first-ever Hostage and Wrongful Detainee Day.

“This is a solemn day,” Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said Friday as he stood before the flag, bearing the words “bring them home” and dozens of tally marks.

“Today’s ceremony is a solemn recognition of those who have returned home, those who regrettably never will, and those still being held captive abroad,” he said, adding that it was “an opportunity to recommit ourselves – to truly recommit ourselves – to stand united against the scourge of hostage diplomacy, and to reaffirm the principles of peace, justice and human dignity for all.”

“The State Department will solemnly raise the flag each year and whenever a hostage or wrongfully detained returns from abroad or dies in captivity,” Campbell said.

Hostage and Wrongful Detainee Day will be annually recognized on March 9 – the date on which former FBI agent Robert Levinson was abducted in Iran 17 years ago. Levinson is believed to have died in Iran. His family members are strong advocates for the hostage and detainee community, and legislation on wrongful detention has been named in his honor.

Speaking outside the State Department Friday, Campbell vowed to the loved ones of those still held abroad: “The United States government is with you and we will work tirelessly until you are reunited with your loved ones.”

However, for some, the message rang hollow. As the years have gone by with few apparent updates and little to no public acknowledgment by the US government, these families say they fear that their loved ones cases’ are not being made a priority.

Family members of Americans detained abroad demonstrate in front of the White House on March 8, 2024. - Jennifer Hansler/CNN
Family members of Americans detained abroad demonstrate in front of the White House on March 8, 2024. - Jennifer Hansler/CNN

“We do feel invisible,” said Maryam Kamalmaz, whose father Majd Kamalmaz was detained in Syria in February 2017. He hasn’t been heard from since.

Kamalmaz is among the family members who have called on President Joe Biden to meet with them – a request that has not yet been granted.

After the flag raising Friday, they gathered in Lafayette Park in front of the White House to once again plead their case.

“We are sick and tired. Sick and tired of standing in front of the White House, having to travel across the country to DC, to the doorstep of President Biden, begging with him to just meet with us. Even for only five minutes,” said Harrison Li, whose father Kai Li has been detained in China since 2016.

“We were here in December, sitting in this park, begging for President Biden to see us for a few minutes to talk about our loved ones,” said Aida Dagher, the sister-in-law of Zack Shahin, imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates. “The next morning, he met with the families of Gaza hostages. We’re very happy for them. We’re not jealous. But treat us all equally.”

US officials have repeatedly said that a meeting with the president is not necessary to ensure that their loved ones’ cases are being worked on and it does not expedite someone’s release.

“We know the president has met with some families and not all of them have come home,” Li said.

“We know it’s not easy. There’s no magic button,” he said. “But at the same time, if the president doesn’t even hear from us, doesn’t know the names of our loved ones or isn’t reminded of it, he’s not going to be able to do anything.”

US officials say that bringing home Americans wrongfully held abroad is a top priority. In his State of the Union address Thursday, Biden said the US will “work around the clock to bring home Evan (Gershkovich) and Paul (Whelan) — Americans being unjustly detained by the Russians — and others around the world.”

Whelan told CNN on Tuesday that he would like to speak with Biden, to “remind the President and the National Security Council that I’m still here, being held hostage by the Russian government, and the Biden administration has got to take decisive action to secure my release.”

“If they don’t do anything, I’m stuck here. And if I’m stuck here, I die here,” he said.

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