Dozens of family members of Americans detained abroad gathered in Washington on Wednesday to unveil a mural of their loved ones, to urge the country not to forget about them and again call for the US government to act decisively to bring them home.
For many of the families, it has been years since they have seen these faces – now plastered in black and white, 10 feet tall on an alleyway wall in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood – in person. And many of the photos used by the artist, Isaac Campbell, were the last taken of the 18 individuals before they were detained and showed them in the way that their loved ones want them to be seen.
“This picture shows his kind and joyful smile,” said Alexandra Z. Forseth of her father, Alirio Zambrano, who has been detained in Venezuela since 2017 as one of the so-called Citgo 6. Her uncle, Jose Luis Zambrano, is also detained as part of the group.
“It’s what I miss the most, and laughing with him, and getting his perspective on the little things in life,” she continued.
Wednesday’s event was punctuated by emotional, personal remarks for many of the family members – and an unexpected call from one of the detainees himself.
“Matthew called just now,” said Everett Rutherford, Matthew Heath’s uncle. “We were able to tell him what we’re doing for him, for the other families, how hard we’re working to try to get him home, to try to give him a bit of courage and hope.”
Many of the family members spoke of the pain of their prolonged separation, and the fear that their loved ones might never make it home.
“When we talk about time, it is not an abstract concept,” said Neda Sharghi, whose brother Emad Shargi has been detained in Iran since 2018. Her elderly father, who she said had been so happy to be at the event, passed out in the intense summer heat and was taken to the hospital.
“Any second my father could pass and not see his son anymore,” she said through tears.
“Every minute feels like an eternity for us,” said Tara Tahbaz, who has not seen her parents since November 2017. Her father, Morad Tahbaz, is detained in Iran, and her mother has been blocked from leaving by a travel ban. “To just keep hearing words and no actions is the most painful thing ever.”
The unveiling of the mural came amid growing public frustration from many of the families with the White House, saying it is not taking enough concrete action to bring their loved ones home. Many have sought to meet with President Joe Biden, to draw his attention to their cases. The White House has not committed to Biden meeting with the families.
“I am here in a desperate attempt. Am I saying the right words that the right people will hear me? Will President Biden hear what I’m saying and hear our pain?” asked Gabriela Zambrano Hill, the daughter of Alirio Zambrano and niece of Jose Luis Zambrano.
Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens, who spoke at the event, said Biden “knows every single case, he’s interested in them, he’s briefed all the time by Secretary (of State Antony) Blinken.”
“He knows about this mural today,” Carstens added.
The mural, a project of the “Bring Our Families Home Campaign,” will eventually fade away.
“It’s my biggest hope,” the artist told CNN, “that some of these people can stand in front of their picture and say I’m home.”
CNN’s Kylie Atwood and Michael Conte contributed reporting.