‘Hell is finally over’: Idaho teacher held for years in Chinese prison returns home

REXBURG – The director of a former English-teaching program based in Rexburg has returned to the United States after being imprisoned in China for more than two and a half years.

Alyssa Petersen was greeted with hugs and tears by her parents and other family members at the airport in St. Louis on Sunday afternoon.

“It was kind of surreal until we finally saw her at the airport. Then it was finally real,” says Clark Petersen, Alyssa’s father. “We had the whole family there. It was a great family reunion.”

Police in the Chinese province of Jiangsu arrested Alyssa in September 2019 while working as the director of China Horizons. She and her boss, Jacob Harlan – the owner and founder of the company – have been accused of illegally moving people across borders. The Rexburg company organizes student visits to China and teaches English to students.

Jacob Harlan and Alyssa Petersen were arrested in 2019. Harlan remains in detention in China.

The case has drawn the attention of U.S. lawmakers with the Congressional Executive Commission on China, which sent a letter to President Donald Trump in January 2020.

The commission called the Chinese government’s arbitrary imprisonment or detention of Americans ‘deeply concerning’ and said the arrests of Alyssa and Harlan coincided with the detention of a Chinese official in the United States for fraud to visas.

Friends and family posted an update on a GoFundMe pagewho raised over $50,000 to help cover legal costs.

A the trial finally took place for Alyssa in China in May 2021, and she was found not guilty, according to her father, but she remained in prison for the next 12 months. The case is at a standstill as the prison and justice systems closed due to COVID-19 and communication between Alyssa and her family was extremely limited.

“We were able to send letters, and sometimes she was able to get them depending on whether the consulate was able to visit her. If the consulate was able to visit, she could contact us through them, but the past year and a half has been rare,” Clark told EastIdahoNews.com.

Alyssa Petersen has returned home after more than two years.

Alyssa Petersen has returned home after more than two years.

Petersen declined to give details of the conditions his daughter endured while in custody, but says he and his wife Carrie Petersen were never able to speak with Alyssa on the phone. They relied on friends in China for updates and prayed for his safe return.

Earlier this month, Alyssa was sentenced to 2.5 years in prison with credit for time served and a release date of May 23. On Sunday, she was taken to the airport in China, where she called her parents.

“They let her call to say she was going home. It was a 13 hour flight to Los Angeles and then she had a three hour flight home to St. Louis,” Clark explains. “She is resting, happy to be home and looking forward to eating food instead of rice. As she said, hell is finally over.

Harlan is still in China and the future of his case remains uncertain, but his wife says on a GoFundMe page that she hopes he will be freed soon.

Alyssa takes the time to process the events of the past few years before discussing them in detail publicly, but has a message for all who have prayed for her and offered help.

“I would like them to know that their support has been felt. It helped me survive,” she says. “There are other people who are still going through what I went through, and they need the same support, help and love.”

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