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‘Hell is finally over.’ Rexburg educator jailed in China for over 2 years returns to America

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REXBURG — The director of a former Rexburg-based English teaching program is back in the United States after being jailed in China for over two and a half years.

Alyssa Petersen was greeted with hugs and tears by her parents and other family members at the St. Louis Airport 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 dad. “We had the whole family there. It was a neat family reunion.”

Police in China’s Jiangsu Province arrested Alyssa in September 2019 while she was working as the director of China Horizons. She and her boss, Jacob Harlan – the owner and founder of the company — were accused of illegally moving people across borders. The Rexburg company arranges for college students to visit China and teach English to students.

The case garnered the attention of United States 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 imprisonment or arbitrary detention of Americans “deeply concerning” and said that the arrests of Alyssa and Harlan coincided with the detention of a Chinese official in the U.S. on visa fraud charges.

Friends and family members posted update on a GoFundMe page, which raised over $50,000 to help cover legal fees.

A trial was finally held for Alyssa in China in May 2021, and she was found not guilty, according to her father, but she remained in jail for the next 12 months. The case stalled as the prison and court systems closed due to COVID-19 and communication between Alyssa and her family was extremely limited.

“We’ve been able to send letters, and sometimes she was able to get them depending on whether the consulate was able to visit with her. If the consulate was able to visit, she could communicate through them to us, but the last year and a half has been few and far between,” Clark tells EastIdahoNews.com.

Petersen declined to elaborate on 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 her safe return.

Earlier this month, Alyssa was sentenced to serve 2 1/2 years in jail 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 on her way home. It was a 13-hour flight to Los Angeles and then she had a three-hour flight to get home to St. Louis,” Clark says. “She is resting, is glad to be home, and looks forward to eating food instead of rice. As she said, hell is finally over.”

CHINA
Jacob Harlan and Alyssa Petersen | Courtesy photos

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 released soon.

Alyssa is taking time to process the events of the past few years before speaking in detail about it publicly but has a message for everyone who 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 experiencing what I went through, and they need the same support, help and love.”

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