FARGO, N.D. – Journalist Roxana Saberi's first time back to her hometown since she walked out of an Iranian prison left her fighting back tears as she thanked friends and supporters.
Saberi and her parents were greeted Saturday at the Fargo airport by a crowd of well-wishers waving "Welcome home Roxana!" banners and lining up for hugs. When it was her turn to speak, Saberi needed comfort from her parents and North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven as she struggled keep her composure.
"It's the first time I've really cried in public," she said.
Saberi, who spent six years in Iran and has dual citizenship, was arrested on Jan. 31 and charged with spying for the United States. The U.S denied the charges. She was sentenced to eight years in prison, but an appeals court reduced that to a two-year suspended sentence and released her on May 11.
Students and teachers from her alma mater, Concordia College in neighboring Moorhead, Minn., brought maroon and gold balloons. The school band played patriotic songs, and Saberi sang along to "The Star-Spangled Banner" before a welcome home ceremony.
Emily Meyer, a Concordia journalism student, called Saberi a role model, someone she feels she knows even though the two of them have never met.
"She's a woman, she put herself out there, she stuck by her ground after she got arrested, she didn't give up," Meyer said.
Hoeven started the ceremony by congratulating Saberi for her "class, dignity and poise" under pressure, and said North Dakotans spoke out in favor of her release.
"We were worried about you. We were worried about you," the governor said.
"Sorry," Saberi replied, smiling.
Concordia College journalism professor Catherine McMullen presented her former student with a "Free Roxana" pin and ribbon that hundreds of students wore during graduation ceremonies.
Concordia President Pam Jolicoeur said "spirits are soaring" with Saberi's return. "We have celebrated many memorable homecomings. We do homecomings," she said. "None of them tops this day."
Saberi, 32, grew up in Fargo where her parents, Reza and Akiko, still live. Her mother cried out in joy as neighbors and friends greeted the family as they walked through the airport concourse. Her father later joked that he didn't know the family had so many friends.
Roxana Saberi, who after her release spent time in Austria and Washington, D.C., before heading for North Dakota, thanked her hometown supporters for believing she was not a spy. She said earlier that she had given a false confession under pressure and later recanted.
Hoeven gave Saberi with a pen set because she plans to write a book on her time in Iran. She has worked for such news organizations as National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp.