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Nonprofit Group Helps Families Of Americans Held Hostage


Every year, about 200 Americans are taken hostage somewhere in the world. Their families often feel adrift. A nonprofit group founded by people who have lived through this experience says it wants to help. NPR's justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Rewind back to 1996. Rachel Briggs was enjoying her first year as a student at Cambridge University. Then came the news that a loved one had been kidnapped in Colombia.

RACHEL BRIGGS: And we faced 7 1/2 months of never knowing if my uncle was alive and dead. We went through the rollercoaster that I now know 22 years later is very usual for all families that go through this.

JOHNSON: Her uncle returned home safe, but Briggs never forgot the fear and uncertainty. She went on to start a group to help other families first in the United Kingdom and then here in the U.S. two years ago. Hostage US helps people whose loved ones have been kidnapped by terrorists or by criminals for ransom. The group also takes on cases of political detention in places like Iran, North Korea and Venezuela.

BRIGGS: The most important thing that we do right from day one is assign each family their own family support volunteer.

JOHNSON: At first, Briggs says, families might not even be able to articulate what kind of help they need.

BRIGGS: Families don't come to you and ask for a list of services on day one. You know, it takes time for the trust to build. It takes time for them to feel ready to tell you that their family finances are collapsing or that the kids aren't doing well at school.

JOHNSON: But in time, those support volunteers can come to feel like family themselves. Percy Pika's father, an American citizen, was taken from his farm in the Republic of Congo.

PERCY PIKA: For two and half weeks, almost three weeks, we did not know his whereabouts.

JOHNSON: Later they found out he was being held in an overcrowded jail with no running water. Pika says the volunteer at Hostage US became like a brother.

PIKA: This man was there, you know, even taking the liberty on the phone to pray with us, you know, to talk to us, to counsel us, to hear us when we wanted to vent.

JOHNSON: The volunteer accompanied the Pika family to meetings with government officials in Washington, and the group helped cover some of their expenses to travel from Nebraska.

LISA MONACO: There are things that the federal government either can't do or is not best poised to do.

JOHNSON: That's Lisa Monaco. She was the homeland security and counterterrorism adviser during the Obama years.

MONACO: The federal government can't ask a company or a corporation to do something for free - simply not allowed to do that.

JOHNSON: During Monaco's government service, brutal images emerged from Syria - American reporters and aid workers beheaded by the Islamic State. Their families were devastated and furious, angry over the lack of information coming from the U.S. government, grieving over the failure to find and recover their relatives before it was too late.

MONACO: It wasn't because the federal government wasn't thinking about this issue. But it was organized for an old problem.

JOHNSON: Monaco looked at the situation and saw a nonprofit group like what became Hostage US could help fill some of those gaps for families. This year she joined the board of the organization. Rachel Briggs of Hostage US says a lot needed changing about the government approach. But, she adds, a lot has changed. Her organization is now around to connect families with advice, to secure a power of attorney so they can access bank accounts or pay their mortgage or to get tax advice about how to notify the Internal Revenue Service a loved one has been captive and hasn't been able to pay their income taxes.

BRIGGS: Going through this is a very lonely experience. You're told, don't tell anybody. Families often find themselves coping without their normal social support structure around them. And so we really hope that anybody going through this dreadful ordeal can find us as soon as possible.

JOHNSON: For the Pika family in Nebraska, the ordeal is mostly over. Their father returned home late last year. This holiday season, they plan to invite their Hostage US volunteer for a special meal - saka-saka.

PIKA: Spelled S-A-K-A.

JOHNSON: Cassava leaves with peanut butter - Percy Pika says it tastes like home. Carrie Johnson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.