How 12 volunteers helped the hostage families endure crisis in Iran

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The door of the secretary of state's lavish private conference room opens and in walks a smiling, jubilant Elizabeth Ann Swift. From a nearby chair, the former American hostage in Iran triumphantly scoops up a trophy, the US Air Force coat she received on arrival in West Germany, and heads off for a ski vacation. At the door she pauses to smile at a group of women volunteers who helped sustain her mother through the long hostage ordeal.

Hastening to follow, her petite ruddy-cheeked mother rises from the huge conference table, dons a herringbone tweed hat of the style made famous by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and leaves her amused friends with a triumphant "verrry chic, indeed."

The Swifts' camaraderie with their friends is more than passing thanks. It reflects recognition among hostage families of the model role these volunteer workers played in the crisis -- a role that could yield clues to coping successfully with future such crises.

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From their elegant State Department quarters, a dozen women maintained daily telephone contact with the families of the 52 hostages, providing a sounding board off which to bounce feelings and frustrations, helping to explain unexpected news from Iran, offering suggestions on how to cope with tasks that once had been the job of family members held captive in Iran.

Little did they know when they offered to help for a few days back in November 1979 that their vigil would go on for more than 14 months.

"I thought it might last two or three weeks at most," reflects Sylvia Josif, wife of a career diplomat. "But here we are 14 months later. Most of us have taken no vacations. We literally bathed in news from Iran, and hardly read anything else, right up until the last minute."

With the ordeal over, the Family Support Group (as it came to be known) is packing boxes preparatory to turning its blue-draped chamber back over to the secretary of state. But the 12 women and the families of the former hostages have just begun to reflect on aspects of support group's work that made the ordeal more "livable."

The contact with the hostage families was vital, observes Mrs. Louisa Kennedy , wife of the third-ranking employee at the US Embassy in Tehran, Moorehead Kennedy.

"They have gone beyond the call of duty in supporting families which, in an ordeal like this, can feel totally out of communication." Mrs. Kennedy says. "Wherever families were located across the country, few felt there was enough information about their loved ones. They probably had as much as anyone, but information was indeed slight, so that they were often left with their lonelinesses, their apprehensions, and imaginations. But these volunteers came in day after day to fill that gap."

Since most of the volunteers were wives of foreign service officers and had lived in the Middle East, they were also able to help interpret troubling news. Particularly tense were the Islamic holidays when Iranians marched through the streets of their cities flagellating themselves on the back with chains.

"TV cameras were over there giving this bloody event such heavy exposure," recalls Mrs. Josif. "Naturally, it was a fearful time for the families. All they saw were people acting apparently like madmen, while their own loved ones were held prisoner. The Family Support Group was able to explain the traditional religious meaning of the holiday, easing the families' anxieties."

For their part, the 12 volunteers, like Marian Brecht, agree that their work could provide guidelines for future crisis reponse. But it could not be institutionalized by the government, Mrs. Brecht stresses.

"Its success was its spontaneity, the fact that we were volunteers," she says. "Families reluctant to speak openly to government officials, for fear of making a bad impression, felt free to talk with us, who they knew would keep their confidence."

The support group remains adamant about protecting those confidences and not mentioning names. But some of the group do cite qualities in the families' own responses to crises that made a difference.

"In some cases it was the sheer strength of character that brought these people through," Mrs. Josif says. "In some, what impressed me was their strong sense of faith, along with the support they received from their ministers and churches. But for all, the key was approaching each day just one at a time, trying to lead as normal lives as possible. Hopefully, this is an area where we also helped . . . in the tradition of the way foreign service families abroad lend each other a hand during hardships."

Adds Betsy Barnes, another of the volunteers: "What I found most heroic was the remarkable lack of hysteria demonstrated by so many of these families. There were, of course, moments of anger and times when voices would break. But somehow they were determined to go about things they had to do without putting burdens on other people. There was such remarkable sanity from the simpler folks, who would say, 'I know this is going to be hard, but we'll manage.'"

The families also came to have a great deal of confidence in the ability of the hostages to pull through, recalls Mrs. Brecht. "After the first two or three weeks they seemed convinced that the hostages would return safely, although there were some dark moments after the failed rescue attempt last April."

Many families concluded that the press was manipulated by the Iranians and that the publicity following the seizure of the US Embassy prolonged the ordeal, according to Mrs. Josif.

"How could the militants let the hostages go once they were getting all that world attention?" she says. "The longer they could hold the hostages, the more they could hold world attention and consolidate their political position. Many families were distressed by the way our press was manipulated."

Only about four of the 12 who contributed to the work are still actively involved. But these women intend to maintain a small office at the State Department and continue occasional contacts with the families.

Once it might have been possible to bow out of the picture, reflects Betsy Barnes. But the involvement in the families' ordeal has been too total to leave behind.

"I remember thinking back in the fall, if this thing goes beyond Christmas, maybe I'll have to pull out," says Mrs. Barnes. "But as Christmas approached, I knew I couldn't do that. I wanted too much to see this through. We have all become such friends."

Mrs. Brecht concludes, "I just feel fulfilled that we could see this thing through . . . all the way to the end."

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