Christine Levinson wakes up every morning, hoping “this will be the day” her husband — the father of their seven children — is finally freed from Iran, where he has spent the last 11 years as a prisoner.
Each day, Levinson said, she is crushed. And the pain seemed almost worse this week after learning that three American detainees in North Korea were freed and now in the U.S. It was another group of released U.S. prisoners that didn’t include Bob Levinson, the longest-held hostage in American history.
“We’ve been left behind,” Christine Levinson, 67, told TIME on Thursday. “We’re happy that everyone who has been released has been released, and we’re happy for their families, but it makes it extremely difficult.”
Bob Levinson, a retired FBI agent, went missing from Kish Island in Iran in 2007 while on a mission for the CIA, according to his family and an Associated Press investigation. Levinson’s family has long advocated for his safe release. Last year, they filed a lawsuit against Iran in U.S. federal court. But their efforts have been met with repeated disappointment.
“We’ve seen a lot of hostages come home,” said Doug Levinson, the couple’s youngest child. “The one constant is everybody else comes home except for my father. I hoped it would get easier, but it doesn’t. Every single time it’s like ripping off a scab.”
The State Department and its Bureau of Consular Affairs said it does not publicly disclose the number of Americans who are prisoners in other countries. There are at least four Americans being held hostage in Iran, including Baquer Namazi, an ailing 81-year-old, his son Siamak Namazi, Xiyue Wang and Levinson, according to a February statement from President Donald Trump’s administration, which called for the hostages’ “immediate and unconditional release.”
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said U.S. officials were “doing our best to get them all back.” “There are Americans being held in several places,” he said, according to a State Department news release. “When I was the CIA director, I could see the State Department and all of the United States Government was focused on getting every one of those Americans returned wherever they were.”
In an interview with CBS last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif said Iran would consider a prisoner swap with America if the U.S. shows a “change in attitude.”
“It is a possibility, certainly from a humanitarian perspective, but it requires a change in attitude,” Zarif said. “You do not engage in negotiations by exercising disrespect for a country, for its people, for its government, by openly making claims including this illusion about regime change. Then you do not leave much room for a genuine dialogue.”
Bob Levinson’s family believes he is still alive and well in Iran. “We have no reason to believe otherwise, that he’s been killed or that he’s died,” said his son, Doug. “There’s no evidence and there’s no reason to believe that Iran would do anything to hurt him, knowing how valuable he is to America and the U.S. government.”
The family remains optimistic that the U.S. and Iran can still negotiate Levinson’s release, despite President Trump’s decision this week to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal and hit Iran with new sanctions.
“It gives us a new opportunity to do something to get my father home, to talk to Iran,” said Doug Levinson, who was 13 when his father vanished overseas. “I’m very hopeful. We’ve never wavered in our hope that one day we’ll break through.”
The pain of being away from his father for so long has also not wavered. “I feel like he’s been forgotten,” Doug Levinson said. “Every time there’s a deal, every time hostages get released, it’s like what about him?”
“My father is a patriot. We’re a patriotic family,” he said. “It’s awful to feel like the country I love so much has personally failed my father who has given it so much.”
Bob Levinson is now 70-years-old and has no idea his family has grown to include eight grandchildren. He’s missed high school and college graduations, as well as three weddings.
“Each of these events is very, very hard without him there,” Christine Levinson said from the couple’s home in Coral Springs, Fla. “You can’t describe it really. It’s awful.”
Tomorrow, Bob Levinson will miss his 44th wedding anniversary.
“I always toast to him in the evening,” his wife said, “but other than that, it’s just a difficult day to get through.”