Colleagues recall missing journalist as relentless on job

By Jenna Russell
Globe Staff / May 15, 2011

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It was supposed to be a carefree reunion at Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, with lots of catching up between close friends who live apart. Instead, friends of the journalist Dorothy Parvaz who gathered this weekend found themselves fixated on her absence: The 39-year-old Al Jazeera reporter, who traveled to Syria two weeks ago to cover prodemocracy protests, has not been heard from since.

“Her absence is profound,’’ said Andrea Simakis, a reporter and columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who became close with Parvaz during their year together at Harvard. “You want to be celebrating — you’re seeing friends you adore, who you had one of the most important years of your life with — but in the back of your mind you’re thinking, ‘Where is Dorothy? Are they treating her well? Does she even know what day it is?’ ’’

The disappearance of Parvaz, who is now believed to be in custody in Iran, is the latest in a series of dire developments for journalists working overseas. Two other reporters with New England connections, New Hampshire native James Foley and Connecticut native Clare Gillis, have been detained in Libya since April 5. In March, four New York Times journalists were captured while covering fighting in Libya and spent six days in the hands of the government before being released. US photojournalist Chris Hondros was killed last month while chronicling the Libyan conflict.

Parvaz was born in Iran and spent much of her childhood there before moving to Canada, where she graduated from high school and the University of British Columbia. She studied journalism at the University of Arizona and worked as a reporter and columnist at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before becoming the paper’s youngest-ever editorial board member. In 2008, she won a Nieman fellowship to study for a year at Harvard. She went to work for Al Jazeera, the 24-hour news network based in Qatar, after the Post-Intelligencer stopped publishing a print edition in 2009.

Parvaz called her fiance, Todd Barker, on April 28 and told him she was heading to Syria the next day. After she was reported missing, the Syrian government confirmed that she had been detained, but officials waited nearly a week before saying she had been deported to Iran. Parvaz is a citizen of Iran, Canada, and the United States.

Yesterday, Iranian officials said they have no information about Parvaz, Barker said.

In an interview, her fiance said he trusts that she is being treated well in a country where she still has family ties. He appealed to universal human feeling in asking that she be allowed to speak with her family.

“I know that global politics are complicated, but my relationship with Dorothy is simple — I’m deeply in love with her; we’re to be married,’’ Barker said by phone from Vancouver, where he was with Parvaz’s family. “People everywhere can understand that, and that I need to know where she is and that she’s safe.’’

In a statement last week, officials at the Syrian embassy in Washington said Parvaz “attempted to illegally enter Syria through Damascus Airport on an expired Iranian passport, with ‘tourism’ as her declared reason for travel.’’ After a search of her luggage turned up “a large sum of undeclared Syrian currency in cash, along with transmitting equipment,’’ Parvaz “admitted to providing false information’’ and was “extradited in accordance with international law to the passport-issuing country,’’ the statement said.

The State Department in Washington has said it was striving to get details on Parvaz’s situation, according to the Associated Press, which reported that a spokesman said US officials were seeking assistance from Swiss diplomats who represent US interests in Iran. At the Nieman Foundation, where former fellows gathered to bid farewell to retiring curator Bob Giles, Parvaz’s absence fueled emotions.

Some of her classmates cried when Giles paid tribute to Parvaz at a reception Friday night. At a brunch yesterday, her friend Rosita Boland, a reporter for the Irish Times, asked the audience of journalists to help keep Parvaz’s plight in the public eye.

Diane Foley, the mother of detained journalist James Foley, said yesterday she met with government officials in Washington last week to discuss their efforts on her son’s behalf. Tonight, she plans to attend an event in New York City marking the 40th night of James’s detention.

She also spoke last week with an intermediary who had visited with her son, who is a freelancer for the Boston-based world news website GlobalPost, and Gillis, a freelancer for The Atlantic and USA Today.

“It appeared they were being treated humanely, which was wonderful to hear,’’ said Foley. “It is awful, the longer it goes on, but his friends have been wonderful and we have good support.’’

Parvaz’s friends say she is both relentless and charming in questioning sources. “She pinned them to the wall with the sweetest smile on her face,’’ Simakis said of their time at Harvard. “I would forget to ask questions, because it was such fun to watch.’’

Another friend from Harvard, reporter Julie Reynolds of the Monterey County Herald in California, recalled how she once called Iran a Third World country while talking with Parvaz.

“She gave me a look filled with daggers, and then gave me a half-hour lecture on the state of the country today,’’ Reynolds said.

Her friends said they were drawn to Parvaz the first time they saw her, because of her striking style and red patent-leather high heels.

They plan to visit one of her favorite stores this weekend, to buy her something beautiful to wear when she gets back.

Jenna Russell can be reached at