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Saberi, called the 'Daughter of North Dakota,' welcomed home

An emotional Roxana Saberi addresses the many people who attended her welcome home celebration at Hector International Airport Saturday afternoon in Fargo. Carrie Snyder / The Forum1 / 3
From left to right, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, Akiko Saberi, Gov. John Hoeven and Roxana Saberi walk through Hector International Airport Saturday afternoon during the welcome home celebration. Carrie Snyder / The Forum2 / 3
Ten-year-old Preston Degerman eagerly awaits the arrival of Roxana Saberi at Hector International Airport Saturday afternoon. "I just wanted to see Roxana,(she's) an amazing person today. She's really important and has had an amazing journey," said Degerman. Many people filled the airport with maroon and gold "Welcome Home" signs and U.S. flags to show their support for the Fargo native. Carrie Snyder / The Forum3 / 3

As Roxana Saberi arrived in her hometown Saturday, it was clear everyone was touched in some way by her now internationally known story.

From the fellow Miss North Dakota contestants to the north Fargo neighbors who tied yellow ribbons around trees in her honor, strangers and friends alike felt connected in some way to the woman who grew up in Fargo.

"The people of North Dakota kept you in their hearts and their prayers through this long ordeal," said North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven, calling her "the daughter of North Dakota." "It wasn't just us here in North Dakota, it was people around this country, and it was people around the world who spoke out for you. You touched something in all of us."

With a Concordia College band playing "America the Beautiful" in the background, Hoeven and more than 100 well-wishers welcomed Saberi, her parents and Iranian friend Payam Mohebi at Fargo's Hector International Airport.

"We have celebrated many memorable homecomings at Concordia," Concordia College President Pam Jolicoeur said to Saberi, a Concordia graduate. "But none of them tops this day."

The Concordia College graduate and freelance journalist was imprisoned in Iran for four months - a long ordeal that residents from her hometown followed closely.

"She's a Fargo girl, and that's why I'm here," said Fargo resident Darrel Palmer. "I followed (her story) all the time."

From President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton - whom Saberi met with earlier this week - people all over the world followed Saberi's ordeal.

Miss North Dakota Executive Director Marian Hamilton drove seven hours from Williston, N.D., to see Saberi, who was crowned Miss North Dakota in 1997.

"Our prayers are answered," she said before Saberi arrived, tearing up. "We've followed all our girls. We are so proud of Roxana and so glad she's safe."

Holding one of the many maroon and gold signs that read: "Welcome Home Roxana/class of '97," Hamilton was one of the first people to greet Saberi after she stepped off the plane.

The tears flowed between the two as Hamilton hugged Saberi with her mother, Akiko, crying out with emotion nearby.

"I didn't think I was going to get emotional when I came out of the airplane - first time I've really cried in public," Saberi said later. "It's very moving to see friends that ..."

She stopped, pausing for half a minute, clutching a cloth and wiping away tears as her mother and Hoeven comforted her.

"I didn't think I'd see friends like you so soon; I thought maybe when I was going to be 40 years old I'd see you again," the 32-year-old said.

She was given an eight-year sentence for being a spy for the U.S. - a charge later reduced to a two-year suspended term, allowing her to leave the country.

In light of the book Saberi said she now plans to write on Iran and her experiences, Hoeven presented a gift of two ceremonial pens from the state - "so that all North Dakotas can feel like they're helping a little bit with writing that book."

The Fargo North High School graduate has dual citizenship in the U.S. and Iran and had been working in Tehran for six years as a freelance journalist.

"You said one of the reasons you enjoy journalism is it allows you to teach," said Saberi's journalism professor Catherine McMullen. "Thank you, Roxana, for all you have taught my students and all of us.

"You have reminded us that reporting is essential to understanding other people, other cultures, that it's sometimes risky work and that sometimes in America we take our precious First Amendment for granted," she added, giving Saberi a yellow "Free Roxana" pin her students had distributed in her honor.

"The support that I got from you, my home community, was especially dear to me," Saberi said. "All of them seemed to trust me, and I thank them for that trust, for telling the world I really wasn't a spy."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kelly Smith at (701) 241-5515