Our son, Shaofan, was barely 3 when his father, a PhD candidate in Princeton University’s history department, was arrested, sent to Iran’s notorious Evin Prison and accused of espionage in August 2016. Shaofan is now 6 and has lived without his father for half his life. Though Xiyue is the one sitting in Evin, our entire family bears the toll, our lives upended as a result of decades of hostility between the U.S. and Iranian governments.
Like many families in this land of immigrants, mine transcends national boundaries. My husband was born in Beijing and became a U.S. citizen after coming here to pursue his studies. We met and fell in love in Hong Kong, and our son was born in Beijing. Shaofan is a dual Chinese and American citizen, while I am a Chinese citizen.
Xiyue traveled to Tehran in 2016 as part of his dissertation research comparing governance practices across national boundaries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries — an ambitious project that grew out of his long-standing respect for Islam and his love for Persian culture. Although Xiyue had reservations about traveling to Iran, he felt that since the United States, Iran and other nations had signed the Iran nuclear deal, times were changing and he would be safe.
His research, which had been approved by the Iranian government, required him to sift through mundane manuscripts that were a century old. The documents had nothing to do with contemporary Iranian politics. And they were certainly not confidential. Yet Iranian authorities used this research as a pretext for the case against him — ostensibly to apply pressure on the U.S. government.
Xiyue is a diligent and passionate scholar. Even in prison, books — when he can get hold of them — are one of his few comforts amid the harsh conditions. Sitting in the middle level of a three-tiered bunk bed in a small room, he cannot even straighten his back. But with a book in his hands, he is able to put out of his mind the noises and smells from his 25 cellmates crammed underground and imagine that he is back home in Princeton’s Firestone Library.
When we can speak, Xiyue brings up memories of Shaofan, including the funny sounds he made as a baby and the beautiful afternoons when he rode on his father’s shoulders on the way home from day care. Shaofan, however, was too young to remember those moments now. He is quickly growing up into a boy who is curious about the world but confused about his place in it. Recently, he has begun to act out more and ask about his father less. He often refuses to come to the phone during those rare moments when Xiyue is able to call home.
My husband and our family are innocent victims in this quarrel between powers. He is an academic researcher and a father, not a political figure or spy. It is fundamentally unjust that he continues to be treated as a hostage or bargaining chip in a geopolitical dispute.
But with will, anything is possible. I implore the Iranian, U.S. and Chinese governments, and other members of the international community, to come together and find a way to free this innocent man and bring him home to his family without delay. He has already been unfairly kept from his family for far too long.
I have not lost hope. Though each week is a flurry of activity between working at my full-time job and caring for Shaofan as a single mother, I still look forward to the day when Xiyue will walk through our front door again.
At a local fair in Princeton recently, my friends and I set up a table to raise awareness of Xiyue’s plight. Shaofan applied stickers bearing his father’s image onto water bottles and gave them away to people passing by. When people stopped by to hear our story, Shaofan chimed in loudly, “And my daddy is not a bad guy!”
Like all children in this world, Shaofan needs his father. I plead for mercy to be granted to my husband to let us reunite and heal. I continue to pray that when Shaofan blows out his birthday candles next year, Xiyue will be right there, too.