My Life As … Roxana Saberi

Al Jezeera America foreign correspondent Roxana Saberi, who spent 101 days in an Iranian prison on false charges of espionage, told journalism students monday night that she became a journalist to illuminate the lives of people we don’t completely understand.

“I want to learn about the story beyond the headlines.”

Saberi spoke at the second “My Life As” lecture this semester.

Saberi was arrested on January 2009 while researching a book she had been writing about Iranian life. The Iranian intelligence officers who held her captive would later say that she had been “interviewing too many people to be writing a book,” and that it must therefore be a cover for her work as a spy.

Accused of working for the CIA, Saberi was told that she would only be released if she admitted being a spy and then switched sides to work for Iran. At the same time, Iranian officers used what she called “white torture” methods to break her.

“I was terrified and didn’t know what to do,” Saberi said, who had already heard stories of other journalists who had been imprisoned in Iran.

SaberiMLA9According to the Committee to Protect Journalists. 35 journalists were jailed in Iran last year, the second-highest number of of journalists imprisoned by any nation .

Fear ultimately led Saberi to give a false confession for her alleged crimes, though she eventually rescinded it. Her family, friends, and colleagues worked from the outside to push for her release. In May 2009, an Iranian court overturned the sentence, originally set to be for eight years, and Saberi was freed after four months.

Despite being imprisoned, Saberi says doesn’t regret her decision to work and live in Iran.

“It was something my heart was telling me to do,” she said.

Saberi’s father is Iranian, but while growing up, she didn’t have as strong ties to that culture as she did to her mother’s Japanese roots. Coupled with her goal of becoming a foreign correspondent, Saberi was driven to move to Iran.

But this wasn’t always so clear-cut.

Like many college students, Saberi said she didn’t have clear goal in mind during her freshman year at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota.

She said the school’s mission statement, to “influence the affairs of the world by sending into society thoughtful and informed men and women,” left her uncertain how to act on it.

SaberiMLA5“I wasn’t sure how,” she said.

That changed when a friend suggested she join the school’s student-run broadcast news program. Thus began a prestigious career in journalism.

After graduating from Concordia, Saberi earned a Master’s degree from Northwestern University and Cambridge University in Journalism and International Relations.

From there, she went to work in her hometown, Fargo, North Dakota, before ultimately landing a job that would let her work in Iran. She has since produced content for NPR, The New York Times, BBC, The Wall Street Journal and numerous others before accepting a position at Al Jazeera America.

The book she had been writing transformed into “Between Two Worlds,” an account of her imprisonment.

Journalism students in the audience tweeted during the event. Below are a few of those tweets.