Family of Detained Man in Iran Hopes for Safe Return: ‘He Was Taken Because He’s American,’ Says Sister

American Age Official

Hannah Shargi has always sought out her dad for advice about everything from job prospects to relationships.

“He’s a great listener and a great sounding board,” Hannah, 24, tells PEOPLE. “I value his opinion so highly.”

She still asks her dad, Emad Sargi, 58, what he thinks about “big life things and small things,” but these days he is doling out his special brand of fatherly advice from the notoriously dangerous Evin prison in Iran, where he’s been held since 2018.

Her father is one of more than 60 U.S. citizens wrongly detained abroad whose families are working round the clock to bring them home.

“These people were taken because they were American,” says Hannah’s aunt, Emad’s sister, Neda Sharghi, 50, who has been pushing tirelessly for the American-Iranian businessman to be released from the Tehran prison where he’s serving a 10-year sentence for alleged espionage.

After fighting by themselves for so long, Neda, along with Emad’s wife, Bahareh, 56, and their two daughters, Ariana, 26, and Hannah — joined the Bring Our Families Home campaign to push the U.S. government to get every American detainee or hostage back home.

“These are very normal Americans who live very ordinary lives but are unfortunately caught up in an issue that has nothing to do with them, but with bigger, broader issues,” she says.

For more about Emad Sargi and other Americans who are being held overseas, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands this week.

The families involved in the campaign are thrilled for fellow members whose loved ones — former Marine Trevor Reed, 30, and WNBA star Brittney Griner — were released this year from Russian prisons.

The goal now is “to urge our government and our administration to use all the tools available to them to bring them all home,” Neda says. “There’s only so much that we can do alone.”

Taken in the Middle of the Night

Emad was arrested while he and his wife were visiting family and sightseeing in Iran.

“As empty-nesters, my brother and my sister-in-law decided to go back and visit my sister-in-law’s family and also reconnect with the country in which they were both born, but did not grow up in,” explains Neda.

Their trip was not at all what they expected.

At about 2:30 a.m. on April 23, 2018, Emad and Bahareh were at her mother’s house in Iran when they heard a commotion outside, Reda says.

Members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps had scaled the property’s walls and raided the house, says Neda.

They spent hours going through the house. “It’s not clear what they were looking for or why they were there,” she says.

Without any explanation, they took Emad away.

“It was just pure horror,” says Neda.

“Having to tell his daughters that this happened to their father was one of the worst experiences of my life,” she says.

Ariana was getting ready to graduate from college and Hannah had just started college when their father was dragged away.

Eight agonizing months later, Emad was released and told he had been cleared of all allegations against him. But he was still made to wait in Iran for authorities to return his passport so he could return home to Washington, D.C.

That never happened.

Just as suddenly as he had been released, he was ordered back to court where he learned he had been convicted of espionage in absentia and was sentenced to a decade in prison, says Neda.

Hannah says she was sickened when she learned he’d been convicted.

“I just thought, “How could this be reality? My father has done nothing. How is this happening to us?”

Hannah last saw her father five years ago in Dec. 2017, when she and her family celebrated Christmas together in Iran.

“That’s like one-fifth of my life almost, that he has not been here, has not been able to be in my life and give me guidance,” she says.

Calling her dad her “best friend,” she says, “he is the glue that has held our family together all these years. I just miss him every day.”

Her father has missed anniversaries, birthdays, and graduations.

“The fact that he’s missed so many of these big moments in our lives is really hard for us, but much harder for him definitely,” she says.

“I think it weighs on him and makes him feel guilty when it’s the last thing he should feel because he’s just, for some reason, ended up in this horrible situation that he should never be in,” Hannah continues. “These people are being used as political leverage in this game that is not theirs to play or theirs to be a part of. They’re just trying to go about their normal lives and are being used.

“I just want my dad back home,” she says.

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