The first thing Naghmeh Abedini’s oldest child, Rebekka, 9, wants to do Monday when she reunites with her father, Saeed Abedini, is to touch his head. She remembers him with hair, but now he’s balding.
“(Our two children) won’t fully realize he’s free until they touch him and see him,” Naghmeh said. “They’ve been saying, Mom, it’s going to be weird. We don’t know him.”
Held since 2012 in an Iranian prison on charges of evangelizing, Saeed was one of five Americans released last Saturday as part of a prisoner swap negotiated by the U.S. government. He returned to U.S. soil Thursday evening, arriving at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove, a 12,000-acre mountain retreat in Asheville, N.C. He and his family are expected to stay there for some time.
The family originally planned to meet Saeed in Germany, where he first stopped to receive medical care, but Naghmeh pulled back after speaking with him.
He has been slowly absorbing what it means to be free after years of imprisonment, she said, so she decided it would be best to slowly reintroduce him to Rebekka and Jacob, 7, in the privacy of the retreat center.
When Saeed was captured, the children were still practically toddlers, she said. Now they admit to Naghmeh that even though they’re celebrating the return of their father, it will be a complicated reunion.
“We’re going to be excited, but it’s going to be like meeting a stranger,” she said they’ve told her.
“I remember when he would be gone for a week and for two weeks (before he was captured), he’d come back and be a stranger to them,” she said. “Now he’s been gone for half their life.”
SURPRISED BY SAEED’S RELEASE
Naghmeh had seen indications of a possible a Iran/U.S. prisoner exchange since last winter.
“During the nuclear talks we knew there were sideline negotiations,” Naghmeh said. “And last year, around December, we knew Iran was asking something from the Americans. We assumed there were talks about a prisoner exchange.”
On Friday night, she heard her husband was taken out of his cell, which she considered a good sign. The last time that happened, in January 2015, Saeed made a phone call home.
But Naghmeh didn’t know Saeed was getting released until Saturday morning, when Iranian state television made the announcement.
“The State Department wasn’t answering why Saeed was taken. The next morning I heard first through Iranian TV. I heard through people calling me at 6 a.m.,” she said.
The State Department made the call to Naghmeh around 7 a.m. Saturday confirming that Saeed was coming home.
PUBLIC OUTCRY, COMPLICATED MARRIAGE
Since then, the family has sorted through complicated feelings while the national community voiced mixed reactions. At one point, Naghmeh had to request civility on Facebook.
“I told people to be nice because I had just spoken with President (Barack) Obama. I had so much hateful mail,” she said.
People were mad she spoke with the president. They were mad about how Obama conducted the negotiations. They were mad that last fall she alleged in an email sent to supporters and friends that Saeed was abusive.
“I’ve had a little bit of people mad at me for destroying the idol image of Saeed,” she said. “But he’s a human being and I’m a human being and we make mistakes.”
The abuse, she said, started before his imprisonment. Her email stated Saeed had inflicted physical, emotional and psychological abuse on Naghmeh, and that he suffered from an addiction to pornography. Naghmeh has not elaborated further. But she hopes that with his return, they can come together as a family and privately heal. She’s also hoping their family can help others by example.
“(The abuse) was never intended for public knowledge. But now that it’s out there, as a Christian, I’m hoping God can use it to help other people,” she said.
Overall, she said, she’s been supported. As a face of Christian persecution in Iran, Saeed can represent hope to others, Naghmeh said.
“It’s a time of celebration,” she said. “Our family, we’re strong. Saeed’s strong. And we’re going to be able to process and move past things and become more unified.”