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How 12 volunteers helped the hostage families endure crisis in Iran

By Richard HarleyStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 9, 1981


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.

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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.

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."