A Chat With Writer and Human Rights Advocate Roxana Saberi

Journalist and Fargo native Roxana Saberi has traveled the world as a journalist and been in the international spotlight as a prisoner in Iran. But now she’s exactly where she wants to be, telling stories that might not otherwise be heard and speaking out for human rights.

Roxana is back in Fargo hosting Between Two Worlds: America and The Middle East at The Fargo Theatre on October 9 (limited tickets are still available), a dialogue-centered event that features a diverse range of voices with ties to the Middle East.

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I had a chance to ask Roxana a few questions about her work, her inspiration and her favorite spots in Fargo-Moorhead.

She even took time to answer a few questions from Prairie Style File readers. And in true North Dakota style, she already knew half of the people who wrote in!

Roxana has deep roots in Fargo-Moorhead. She graduated from Fargo North, attended Concordia College in Moorhead, where she received degrees in communications and French and represented her state as Miss North Dakota in 1997.

She went on to obtain two master’s degrees, one in journalism from Northwestern University and a second in international relations from the University of Cambridge.

She started her career in journalism on the air at KVLY-TV in Fargo and moved to her father’s native Iran in 2003 to work as a correspondent for Feature Story News, filing stories that ran on ABC Radio, NPR, BBC and Fox News.

She was still in Iran, busy working on a book, when she was arrested in January 2009. She was sentenced to eight years in Evin Prison on charges of espionage. Amidst increasing international pressure, an Iranian court overturned the decision in May 2009 and Roxana was released.

Roxana did end up writing a book about her time in Iran. “Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran” launched her into a whirlwind of book signings, interviews and speaking engagements. She is a passionate writer and eloquent speaker with a unique perspective human rights, Iran and overcoming personal adversity.

Here’s more from Roxana!

Roxana-Saberi-Book-Photo-by-Jadi
Photo by Jadi via Flickr

Why is it important to attend events like “Between Two Worlds: America and The Middle East”?
“What’s happening in the Middle East affects us here in the United States, from instability and conflict to the economy and the environment. We can also be inspired by the courage of ordinary people as they stand up for their basic rights, even at the cost of their own lives. Travel, the internet, and globalization have brought us closer and closer together. And even though in many ways, we live in two different worlds, we share the same earth, and we are all part of one humanity.”

What attracts you to a story?
“I enjoy learning new things that I can share with others, subjects that they might find interesting, informative, or entertaining. I look for the unique in every story but also the universal, lessons about themes such as love, fear, and courage. I’m most attracted to stories about people we don’t often hear from, especially people working against all odds to overcome adversity.”

Iran-Trip-by-Orlygur-Hnefill
Photo by Örlygur Hnefill via Flickr

What upcoming projects are you most excited about?
“I’ve been reporting for Al Jazeera America, based in New York. I work with a great group of people from all over the world and the U.S., and I get to cover both international stories as well as local ones. I hope to continue telling these stories!”

How did growing up in Fargo affect the way you see and interact with the world?
“As a child of Iranian-Japanese heritage in the 1980s, I often felt I didn’t fit in. I wasn’t very interested in my parents’ native countries until I grew older, and then I realized that two worlds, both rich in history and culture, were within my reach, if only I opened my eyes. I became more interested in other cultures, including my parents’, and I decided to combine that interest with journalism, as a foreign news correspondent.

Fargo taught me how to be kind! People in Fargo are so warm and hospitable, and I believe this trait rubbed off on me. I generally find it easy to interact with others in new environments, to find some commonality despite our differences.”

Concordia-College
Photo by Life Together

What are some of your favorite memories of your time in this region?
“Soccer at Fargo North and soccer and piano at Concordia College, working at KVLY (except for doing live shots outside in the middle of winter!), and spending time with my family and friends.”

And, because I’m a travel writer at heart, what can’t miss spots would you recommend to someone who’s never been to Fargo?
“Love this question. I would recommend catching a movie at the Fargo Theatre, having a nice meal downtown, going to meditation or yoga at The Spirit Room, and walking through one of our lovely parks, like Trollwood or Lindenwood. I hear The Fargo Marathon is an amazing experience, though it was launched after I left, and I have never been in town for it.

If a visitor wants to go beyond Fargo, I’d suggest a visit to the Badlands (a show in Medora, a hike in Theodore Roosevelt National Park) or a drive up to the International Peace Garden. The Miss North Dakota pageant in Williston, ND, is also a unique experience!”

Iranian-Women-by-Amir-Farshad-Ebrahimi
Photo by Amir Farshad Ebrahimi via Flickr

“How did living and working in Iran challenge your concept of gender roles?”
– JoRelle Grover, anthropologist and printmaker

“I didn’t reflect much on women’s roles or rights before I went to Iran. But after I moved there, I saw how women and men are often treated differently. Women in Iran enjoy certain rights that their counterparts in many other Middle Eastern countries do not. They can drive cars, run for office (except for the presidency), and keep their last names at marriage. Iran has women firefighters, police officers, and business owners, and more women than men enter college each year.

But women in Iran also face a lot of limits. Their testimony is worth half that of a man’s in court, and they get half the inheritance. Men can have up to four wives. (Though this is not very common, I did meet a few men with two wives). While many women are active in society, men dominate the public sphere, and some traditional families raise their daughters to focus on finding a good husband.

From what I witnessed, I realized that it’s very important for girls and women to be encouraged that they have the ability to make a difference in their societies, beyond their own families.

I also became more keenly aware of the power of women, as long as they have the opportunities and the self-confidence.”

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The Jāmeh Mosque of Yazd (مسجد جامع یزد)
Photo by Ali Reza via Flickr

“Did you always know that you wanted to be a journalist? I’m just wondering if you had that in mind on air at KVLY and onstage as Miss North Dakota, or if it came to you later.”
– Bob Harris, KFGO Radio host

“Hi, Bob! I decided to go into journalism when I was a student at Concordia College. I wasn’t sure what to major in, and when my classmate suggested I take part in the campus TV program, I found that I really enjoyed it! I liked the idea of learning new things, then sharing what I learned with others. I thought journalism would give me an opportunity to meet new people, travel to new places, and make some kind of impact on my community. It sure has been an adventure!

Roxana-Saberi-Graphic-by-James-Buck
Graphic by James Buck via Flickr

“Do people still ask you about your incarceration when they meet you, or have people moved beyond it?”
– Bob Harris

“In New York, people ask me about it, if I get introduced as, ‘This is Roxana. She’s a journalist. She was jailed in Iran.’ But if they don’t know that part of my past, they don’t ask about it.

I don’t mind speaking about my imprisonment if it can help bring attention to people who are still in prison, who are suffering much more than I ever did. Two of my former cellmates are still behind bars. Their names are Fariba Kamalabadi and Mahvash Sabet, and they are two members of Iran’s minority Baha’i faith serving 20-year prison sentences. They were two of my angels in Evin Prison.”

Want to learn more about Roxana and her book? Check out her book trailer here or join her at Between Two Worlds: America and The Middle East tomorrow at the Fargo Theatre.

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All photos shown here are in the public domain or have been used with permission. Photos from Flickr contributors have not been altered in any form, in accordance with the Flickr Creative Commons License.

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