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Iranian Bike-Riders Span America as Unofficial Spokesmen for Peace

After Sept. 11, friends and family warned them of danger. They would not be dissuaded.

June 23, 2003|Denise M. Bonilla | Times Staff Writer

They traveled through deserts and snowstorms, down quiet, winding back roads and along busy thoroughfares.

In New York, restaurant owners gave them meals. In Texas, people stood in their frontyards waving as they rode past. They were called friends by strangers they met on the street, family by those who let them sleep in their homes.

Now, after 9,000 miles, 33 states and countless pairs of socks, Amir Ahmadi and Hassan Alizadeh's mission of peace in the United States has ended in Orange County.

The friends, both 32, have been bicycling around the country for nearly two years, part of a global peace journey they began in September 2000 in their Iranian homeland. Their goal: a simple cultural exchange with Americans.

"By our coming here on bicycles, we represented [Iranians]," Alizadeh said. "We said, 'This is Iran, not what you see on television.... See us as flesh, not as some militant, terrorist or something else.' "

Last week, the pair greeted some of the 6,000 Iranians who attended the Network of Iranian American Professionals trade show at the Hyatt Regency Irvine. Wearing matching purple bike suits, Ahmadi and Alizadeh spent more than four hours with Iranian Americans who wanted to offer congratulations.

"Mile by mile, we presented our peace and love message to America," Alizadeh said.

Carrying 100 pounds of gear on their Cannondale bikes and cycling 60 miles a day, they looked like any other bicyclists, save for an Iranian flag on the front of their bikes and a small laminated sign that read "Around the World for Peace."

The two are biking professionals who have known each other for more than 13 years. Before they set out on their trip, both were students at Azad University in Tehran, where Alizadeh studied English and Ahmadi pursued a degree in electrical engineering

Their peace mission took root when they were just boys, seeing the ravages of war with Iraq.

"That was our childhood," Alizadeh said. "Buildings destroyed, bombings, the killing of Syrian people. We saw both sides killed for nothing."

Not wanting to get politically involved but with a desire to spread a message of peace, they began cycling around their country.

In September 2000, with just $4,000, they began their world tour, traveling first through Pakistan and then India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and Canada before heading to the U.S. They have logged more than 17,000 miles, their journey partly funded by donations. "The hospitality we encountered was tremendous," Ahmadi said.

Often the cyclists' hosts were Iranian Americans alerted to their arrival through a phone and e-mail network set up by the expatriate community. The community was so grateful for the peace mission that the friends' trip across the U.S. has taken more than twice as long as planned. Every time they intended to stay in a city for a day, their newfound friends invited them to stay longer.

"It's not just the two of us [on this trip,]" Alizadeh said. "A lot of [Iranian Americans] supported us financially, letting us into their homes, feeding us, helping us."

They were in San Diego, heading east, when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred. Although Iranian friends and family warned them to be careful of retaliation, the bicyclists said they were never treated badly because of their ethnicity.

"Everyone said, 'Be careful. It may be dangerous for you,' but everyone was friendly," Alizadeh said. "This is the exact time we need a peace message."

They have hit their share of snags on the trip, however. They were sidelined for six months when Alizadeh injured his knee.

After their stay in Southern California, they will fly to London to begin the European leg of their tour. From there, they hope to head to Africa and then Australia before returning home. They had hoped to tour South America, but repeated requests for visas have been denied.

The pair said that they are happy to have completed this part of their journey and are proud of the friendships they have made here.

And, Ahmadi said, "We put out our energy and [cycled] 15,000 kilometers without polluting the air of the U.S."

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