Todd Barker knew something was amiss only a few hours after he’d last heard from his fiancee, Dorothy Parvaz. Though separated by continents and time zones, they were constantly in touch by e-mail and phone. They had learned to make a long-distance relationship work.
But all the chatter stopped on April 29. On that day, Parvaz, a digital journalist for al-Jazeera English, flew to Damascus, Syria. Neither Barker’s nor Parvaz’s families have heard a word from her since.
The news, such as it is, has been ominous.
Barker’s and Parvaz’s families learned on Wednesday that Parvaz was deported from Syria to Iran several days after she arrived in Damascus. They have heard nothing since from the Iranians, despite the efforts of American and Canadian diplomats.
Barker isn’t sure what to make of his fiancee’s transfer to Iran. On one hand, Parvaz holds Iranian citizenship (as well as American and Canadian). On the other, Iran’s relations with the West are poor; it has held two American hikers for the past 22 months on espionage charges. “It’s debatable whether this is good news or bad news,” said Barker, speaking from north Vancouver, where Parvaz’s family lives. “Frankly, I can only focus on what I know. And I don’t know where she is. My number one goal is to talk to her and hear her voice.”
Parvaz, 39, was born in Iran to an Iranian father and an American mother; she moved to Canada when she was 14. She attended the University of British Columbia and the University of Arizona and worked for the now-defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper. It was in Seattle that she met Barker, a lawyer for Amazon.com.
The couple had planned to marry later this year despite the distance that separates them. He works in Luxembourg; she works in Doha, Qatar, al-Jazeera’s headquarters.
Barker says Parvaz expressed little concern before her trip to Syria despite the violent government crackdown on protests there that has killed more than 750 people, according to human-rights groups. “It wasn’t a big deal to her,” he said. “Just the opposite — I was the one who was worried. I knew she was going into a very uncertain situation. But she truly sees what [journalists] do as a force for justice. That’s something that I know she believes in deeply.”
That actually may have been the crux of the matter for Syrian officials. They say Parvaz attempted to enter the country illegally on April 29 on an expired Iranian passport, with “tourism” as her declared reason for travel.
“After further questioning at the [Damascus] airport and searching her luggage, airport authorities discovered a large sum of undeclared Syrian currency in cash, along with transmitting equipment,” a statement from the Syrian Embassy in Washington said Tuesday. “Upon this revelation, Ms. Parvaz admitted to providing false information to the Syrian authorities regarding her status in Syria.”
Syrian officials then extradited her to Iran on May 1, according to the statement.
“It is very regretful that a journalist working for a world-renowned news agency such as al-Jazeera International would attempt to enter a country on two illegal accounts: an expired passport, and by providing false information on official documents regarding her travel reason,” the Syrian statement said. “It is even more troubling if her employer was aware of, and condoned, this illegal activity. . . .”
In its own statement, al-Jazeera attempted to steer a neutral course: “We are calling for information from the Iranian authorities, access to Dorothy, and for her immediate release. We have had no contact with Dorothy since she left Doha on 29 April and we are deeply concerned for her welfare.”
Few foreign journalists have been permitted to enter Syria since protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began in March. The international Committee to Protect Journalists says at least five other local and foreign journalists are missing in Syria.
Barker, meanwhile, is just hoping for a phone call. “I understand that geopolitical relations are complicated and these things take time,” he said. “My relationship with Dorothy is actually very simple: I love her and want to talk to her.”