Two Americans involved in a teaching exchange program in China have been detained near Shanghai for allegedly "illegally moving people across borders."
Alyssa Petersen, who attended the Idaho campus of Brigham Young University from 2014 to 2017, has been arrested and detained in a Chinese jail outside Shanghai, according to social media posts by China Horizons, her employer, and her parents. After not hearing from her for weeks, her family discovered she had been arrested by Chinese police sometime around the end of September. Her employer Jacob Harlan, who owns China Horizons, was also reported detained.
The charges are "bogus, as she has been doing this for 8+ years with no issues," the family stated.
Petersen is director of China Horizons, an English language program that provides a cultural experience for American college students who teach English in Chinese schools. She assisted Harlan in coordinating visas and travel arrangements, according to the company's Facebook page.
Petersen first went to China as a teacher 10 years ago, her family wrote on social media, adding that she teaches at a school in Zhenjiang and, "when she is not in China," attends BYU-Idaho.
"Jacob Harlan, and the director, Alyssa Petersen, have been detained in China for 13 days now and may be so for the next few months or years," reads an Oct. 11 post on China Horizon's Facebook page. "They are being charged for bogus crimes and their families are working on getting them international lawyers to help them get back home to the states."
Harlan was reportedly detained by police in late September with his 8-year-old daughter. She has been released and allowed to return home, reported the East Idaho News. Harlan remains in police custody in China after having his phone and computer seized.
Carrie and Clark Petersen contacted the State Department to check on their daughter's whereabouts, and U.S. officials at the American Consulate in Shanghai located Petersen at a jail in Zhenjiang, China, the Idaho State Journal reported.
Consulate officials were allowed to visit her in jail for 40 minutes, which was videotaped and monitored by Chinese police, according to the EastIdahoNews.com.
"Alyssa has loved China since the first time she went as a teacher," said Carrie Petersen on the family GoFundMe page. "She longs to make the world a better place. She has taught us, her family, much about accepting and loving other cultures and appreciating their uniqueness."
Alyssa Petersen lists work as a volunteer missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from January 2013 to July 2014 on her LinkedIn profile.
"Oh my word! I'm so sad to hear about this. China Horizons was an absolute pleasure to work with to experience China (twice!)," posted former participant Doug Webster on Facebook. "Jacob wouldn't hurt a fly, and has done so much to further international understanding between the US and China. Hoping for a quick resolution!"
The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory warning on Jan. 3 for Americans to exercise caution when traveling to China: "U.S. citizens may be detained without access to U.S. consular services of information about their alleged crime ... may be subjected to prolonged interrogations and extended detention."
China Horizons has announced that the organization is closing after 17 years "because of increasing political and economic problems between the U.S. and China." The organization says they are working to bring all of their teachers home.