A petite Iranian man wearing a simple black shirt and black shorts walked up to the entrance of Chapel Hill's Spice Street Restaurant last Thursday.
An eager crowd, mostly fellow Iranian countrymen and -women, waited inside to show their support for him and his message of peace and religious tolerance. Once they caught a glimpse of the quiet, tranquil man, they exploded in applause.
Reza K. Baluchi has visited many places and touched many lives. Now, he's spreading his message across the United States.
"From the beginning of his journey, I have been following his story," said Nazi Kite, a former president of the Iranian Cultural Society of North Carolina who organized the Chapel Hill reception. "What really impresses me is he's a really simple person. 'I cannot do it' is not in his vocabulary. He wants to give much more to society. He has big plans and has many goals in life for peace and freedom and he's achieving them one by one. He's not in it for money or to draw attention to himself, but rather to draw attention to the message."
Baluchi's message: "[Iran] is a peace-loving nation and we would like to be in peace with all the people of the world," he said through a translator on his Chapel Hill stop.
His incredible journey started in Iran.
He was born in Rasht, a northern area of Iran near the Caspian Sea. While growing up, Baluchi was appalled at the violence of the Iran-Iraq War. He developed beliefs considered heretical in Iran, among them the importance of the separation between church and state.
As a result, he was punished. He suffered a public flogging for his consumption of food during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month that requires fasting during sunlight. And he was imprisoned for 18 months.
After serving time in prison, Baluchi mounted his bicycle and left his native country to escape religious and political persecution. With that, he began a global ride for peace, traveling through 55 countries and six continents.
Last November, he unknowingly camped in U.S. territory while waiting for a visa in Mexico. He was arrested and charged with illegally entering the U.S. and was incarcerated in Florence, Ariz.
He decided that if the immigration judge freed him, he would complete his journey for peace on foot--running from Los Angeles to Ground Zero in New York City.
Baluchi had faith in the system, and in February, residing immigration Judge LaMonte Freeks granted Baluchi political asylum.
So Baluchi started his 3,000-mile run on May 11, Mother's Day. Now, he's running on Interstates and back roads, through small towns and big cities. Through running, the 30-year-old Baluchi feels that it's easier to get in touch with more people. Running over 30 miles a day on average, his goal is to reach Ground Zero on September 11, 2003, the second anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy.
Among other goals, Baluchi wants Americans to overcome the stereotype that all Middle Easterners are terrorists.
Accompanying Baluchi during his journey is David Hyslop, a resident of Marina del Rey, Calif., who read a New York Times article about Baluchi's detention and offered to help. Hyslop drives a motor home and periodically stops 20 to 30 miles ahead of Baluchi and waits for him.
"When I read The New York Times piece, I thought it was such an incredible journey, and it inspired me to at least write a letter to [Baluchi] and tell him that I support his cause," Hyslop says. "I left my phone number, not expecting anything, but he called me back. It really stuck with me that it was an incredibly important mission."
Baluchi and Hyslop were contacted by a young photojournalist from Arkansas, Neemah Esmaeilpour, who wanted to document Baluchi's journey. He joined the two men in Tennessee and plans to remain with them until the end.
There have been bumps in the road, such as financial and medical challenges. But he always seems to receive help without asking for it from ordinary people's donations--they see him and are inspired by his message.
Baluchi's history as an athlete prepared him physically. Before starting the journey, he trained every day, and participated in triathlons.
His next stop is Richmond, Va., and then Washington, D.C., where he will deliver a message of peace to the White House and lay flowers at the Pentagon. From there he will run to Shanksville, Pa., to pay his respects at the site where the fourth hijacked plane crashed. Then from there, he will run to Ground Zero.
Looking ahead, Baluchi wants to write a book on peace and freedom, would like to continue his involvement with mechanical engineering, and is contemplating cycling in the Tour de France next year.
For more information, visit Baluchi's web site: www.run4peace.com.