Even before Aijalon Gomes set foot back on American soil August 27, Bowdoin was with him.
Gomes '01 spent over seven months in a North Korean prison after being arrested in late January for illegally entering the country. The Bowdoin Christian Fellowship (BCF) compiled messages of support and encouragement for Gomes, which BCF adviser Rob Gregory handed off to the State Department to send to North Korea. On Wednesday, Gregory spoke with Gomes, and learned that the letters reached Gomes while he was imprisoned.
On his journey from Pyongyang to Boston, Gomes was accompanied by former President Jimmy Carter, who had traveled to North Korea to negotiate Gomes's release under the auspices of his nongovernmental, not-for-profit human rights organization, the Carter Center. On July 7, the state-run North Korean news agency reported that Gomes had attempted suicide, which prompted his family to request that he be set free on humanitarian grounds, according to the Associated Press. The North Korean government agreed to the request in late August, on the condition that Carter travel to the country to retrieve Gomes.
As the Orient reported on April 9, it was speculated that Gomes, who had spent time teaching English in South Korea, traveled into North Korea after another American, evangelical activist Robert Park, was detained for illegally entering the country. Park was released in late February.
Gregory told the Orient that the BCF reached out to Gomes's family when the group learned of his imprisonment. After getting in touch with Gomes's grandparents, the BCF was contacted by Gomes's mother, Jackie McCarthy.
"[McCarthy] told us that there were avenues through the State Department to send letters of encouragement to Aijalon, and she placed us in direct communication with the State Department official," Gregory wrote in an e-mail to the Orient.
From late July on, Gregory encouraged members of the BCF to send him letters addressed to Gomes, which he compiled and then e-mailed to the State Department official.
According to Gregory, Gomes read the letters from the BCF "over and over and over." Though Gregory wasn't certain, he believes that Gomes received the letters while he was being treated in a North Korean hospital for his reported attempted suicide.
"There is nothing in my life that would at all compare to the experiences that [Gomes] has had," said Amanda Gartside '12, who participated in the BCF initiative. "I'm sure he felt so lonely and so disconnected from the whole world, and the fact that all these Bowdoin students who have never met him before were praying for him and wanted to write something for him."
Said David Tenorio '12, "Really, [my letter] was just words of encouragement offering him to stay strong, physically, mentally, especially spiritually, and just to let him know that we were here."
Gregory said that in his conversation with Gomes on Wednesday, Gomes was "glad to be home, overwhelmed with the love that he had received from the friends and family and people that had been praying for him, and that [it] sustained him knowing that prayers were being offered to him."
Gomes's family extended an invitation to members of the BCF to attend Gomes's arrival at Logan International Airport, but a last minute request from the Carter Center requested that the group greeting Gomes be kept small.
At Gomes's return to Boston two weeks ago, his family "was very appreciative of President Carter and his willingness to go to North Korea and bring Aijalon back, and Aijalon was more than happy to be back," according to Thaleia Shlesinger, a spokesperson for Gomes's family.
Said Schlesigner, "I spoke to [McCarthy] last week and she seems to be doing fine, and so [does Gomes], they're just trying to get their lives back on track."