Gomes is gentle yet bold, his friends say

By Jay Lindsay
Associated Press / August 27, 2010

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The Boston man who had been imprisoned in North Korea for illegally crossing the border has a gentle spirit, but is also a person willing to be bold about what he believes, friends and acquaintances said.

Aijalon Gomes had been teaching English in South Korea before he crossed into North Korea from China and was imprisoned in January, US officials said.

Yesterday, North Korea granted amnesty to Gomes after former president Jimmy Carter worked to negotiate his freedom, a spokesman for North Korea said.

“ ‘He ran deep,’ I think, would be the phrase that other people might use,’’ said Erik Woodbury, who attended college with Gomes. “I was surprised that he ended up in North Korea, but I wasn’t surprised that there was something he was passionate about.’’

It is unclear what prompted Gomes to enter the communist nation. He may have been emulating fellow Christian Robert Park, who was detained after he crossed into North Korea a month earlier to highlight its human rights record, said Jo Sung Rae, a South Korean human rights advocate who met with Gomes. Park was expelled a few weeks later.

Shortly before he left for North Korea, Gomes was photographed in Seoul, protesting Park’s plight.

Gomes was sentenced in April to eight years of hard labor and fined $700,000 for illegally entering the country. His relatives have declined to say much about him or his situation, though they pleaded for his release on humanitarian grounds.

Gomes grew up in an apartment in Mattapan, long a haven for immigrants and now heavily populated by African-Americans and people from Caribbean nations. In high school, he was featured in a local television documentary about a jobs program that equipped at-risk youth for the workplace. At the time, he was working an afterschool job at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co.

He graduated from high school in 1997 and headed to Bowdoin College in Maine.

Nate Vinton, a sportswriter in New York City, took classes with Gomes and remembered him as polite, earnest, and with a touch of shyness that quickly vanished during conversation.

Vinton also saw hints of Gomes’s religious conviction.

“He talked admiringly of the Bible as a piece of literature in a class that we took together, which was unusual at that school in that place and time,’’ Vinton said. “That stood out, for sure.’’

Gomes was an enthusiastic and good-humored member of Bowdoin’s student-run theater group and worked with Woodbury, now a professor in California, on major roles in “Pippin’’ and bit parts in “Cabaret.’’

Bowdoin graduate Zach Tabacco said Gomes “wasn’t wild by any means, but he definitely had a stronger personality. . . . I can believe that if he thought something was right, he’s going to do what he can to defend that and to support that.’’

Several years after college, Gomes moved to South Korea to teach English. Friend and colleague Marshalette Wise said Gomes was unfailingly professional, even outside work, where she saw him wear only slacks, dress shirts, and bow ties.

She said he was always friendly, helping new teachers become acclimated.

As word of Gomes’s possible release spread this week, members of a Facebook group called “Save Aijalon Gomes!’’ expressed relief and optimism that his ordeal would soon end.

“He is an excellent human being and a joy to know,’’ group member Karen Hinds said in a post Tuesday. “God has kept him.’’

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