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Kelly Smith, Published March 01 2009

Fargo family worries about daughter arrested in Iran

Often it’s Roxana Saberi’s voice that transcends continents in her radio broadcasts. But today, her voice is all her parents want to hear.

“As long as she calls, at least we hear her voice and we know that she’s alive,” her soft-spoken father, Reza Saberi, said Saturday in the family’s north Fargo home.

The 31-year-old Fargo North High School and Concordia College graduate has been working in Tehran, Iran, as a freelance journalist for six years, reporting for news organizations such as NPR and the BBC.

Now, the former Miss North Dakota sits in an Iranian jail likely facing frequent interrogations after her arrest a month ago.

“Whenever I get up at night, I think about her and I worry a lot,” said her father, 67, surrounded by family photos. “This uncertainty is very, very bad when you don’t know where she is or what they’re doing to her or why they’re holding her.”

It’s a lot of questions for the Fargo couple, who haven’t seen their only daughter since last August.

They usually keep in daily contact with Roxana, who got her career start at KVLY-TV in Fargo after earning master’s degrees at both Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and the University of Cambridge in England.

“I had always wanted to become a foreign correspondent since I was at Concordia College,” Roxana told The Forum in a 2003 interview.

The outgoing journalist pursued her dreams, moving to Iran to report on everything from Iranian culture and politics to current events such as the 2004 Iran earthquake.

“She wanted to learn different parts of the world,” said her mother, Akiko, 63, who grew up in Japan. “She went there to be with them (Iranians) and learn.”

The couple talked to their daughter every day, either by phone or Internet. But on Jan. 31, there was no word from Roxana, leaving her mother holding her breath as 10 difficult days passed by.

Then at 3 a.m. Feb. 10, they awoke to a phone call.

In an anxious, tense voice, Roxana told her parents she was being detained after buying a bottle of wine from a person who reported it to authorities. (Alcohol is illegal in Iran.)

“We knew that was a lie,” said her father, who was born and grew up in Iran. “We want them (the Iranian government) to tell us what the reason is.”

The call lasted no more than two minutes. Then, a few minutes later, another urgent call came from Roxana: “ ‘Please don’t do anything because they’ll release me in two days,’ ” she told her father.

The couple respected her wishes, believing she would be released soon.

“We were waiting to see if we could solve it quietly,” her father said.

But now, a month has passed, and the couple’s hopes for a quick resolution are fading.

“Every single day is bad,” her father said. “It has been very tough actually.”

So this week, they decided to go public with their daughter’s arrest. NPR, which Roxana often contributed to, found out about the reporter’s arrest Thursday, reporting the news Saturday morning.

“Obviously NPR is very concerned about Roxana Saberi’s arrest,” spokeswoman Dana Davis Rehm said in a statement from NPR on Saturday. “We have asked the State Department to inquire into the status of her detention and to take steps to assure her immediate release.”

But Roxana’s parents think her release won’t come for a couple more months – meaning their daughter may spend her April birthday in an Iranian jail.

“If they are not satisfied with the information, they may keep her,” her father said of interrogations.

So, the couple is left speculating the perhaps politically motivated arrest of their daughter in a country not keen on free speech.

Her father said the government had already tried to censor Roxana, who was in the process of finishing a book about Iran.

“The book is quite harmless,” he added.

She was planning to wrap it up and come home to publish it in the next couple of months – in time to be the keynote speaker at Concordia’s commencement in May.

Until then, her parents are in contact with an Iranian lawyer and the State Department, trying to arrange a phone call to hear their daughter’s voice once again.

“At least we heard her voice,” her father said of their last phone call. “We know that she’s alive.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter

Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515