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Facebook provides vital link to family in Iran

I’ve been using Facebook for years to connect with co-workers, friends and family. However, I never anticipated its wingspan until I received “friend requests” from my Iranian relatives in Tehran, whom I have seen only a handful of times throughout my life.

I’m a full-blown Hoosier, but my dad migrated to the U.S. from Iran after medical school. We took occasional family trips to Iran: My dad wants his kids to stay connected to Persian culture. There, I got to meet my Iranian extended family. After visits, my relationships with them tended to stagnate ... that is, until we found each other online as young adults.

I always assumed that I'd have little in common with my Iranian relatives, but on Facebook, I saw them as people interested in the same TV shows and the same political news. Their photos and videos on the social networking site gave me insight into their lives. It was almost like meeting completely new people.

With the recent election in Iran, the site became a source of information on the protests and the safety of my family in Iran.

Personal touch to news
I learned that for their own protection, many Iranian students and Facebook users have changed their account names. Rather than taking their profiles down altogether, they say students still feel the need to spread information and stay connected. Family and friends in the U.S. have also helped spread information from Iran through their active Facebook and Twitter accounts.

I decided to message Mojdeh (not her real name), a teenage relative I recently “friended” who is now a student at a university in Tehran. Instead of receiving a Facebook reply, I got an e-mail from her. Mojdeh said she can't really access Facebook, instant message services, mobile phones or Twitter — although e-mail seems to be working.

She told me everyone was safe but frustrated with the election results. Although I could log on to almost any Web site to see the crowds, guards and violence, it felt different coming from someone I was slowly getting to know all over again.

Mojdeh said it’s hard to know exactly what's happening with regard to protests or reports of violence because “they (the Iranian government) don’t tell the truth … but many shots have been fired." She said most people in Tehran don’t accept the election results and believe that the government “cheated.”

So far, she claimed, the Iranian police, known as the Sepah, hit one of her friends who was protesting, and a bullet grazed another friend in the arm. She’s growing concerned about the possibility of spreading violence.

‘Don’t know what’s going to happen’
Mojdeh’s sister, Asal (not her real name), who is following the events in Iran from her home in the U.S., said it seems the family is OK at the moment.

"But this is just for now,” Asal said via Facebook. “We don’t know what’s going to happen if no one supports this protest from outside Iran.”

Asal said people are discussing a rumor that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad asked the army to attack protesters in the street. Mojdeh claimed that the buzz circulating among her friends is that the Sepah has raided homes and universities. The reports are that satellite dishes have been damaged to limit news activity, and young protesters have been beaten in the streets, including women and children. She said she wakes in the middle of the night to hear people screaming, “Allah o Akbar”  — “God is great” — from rooftops in protest against the government.

Asal expressed her concerns about the outcome of the protests and what might happen if people ignore what’s going on. She said some Iranians hesitate to call an ambulance even when they're hurt, because people are saying that injured protesters are being arrested rather than treated.

A few relatives have been keeping close contact with me, sending messages and links to reports about the crisis. But my limited connection with them via the Internet has taught me that people, while fearful of Iranian police reaction, have been empowered by the peaceful protests. They are now, more than ever, determined to stay connected to the rest of the world — at least electronically.

Ladan N. is the daughter of an Iranian immigrant and a summer intern for NBC News' Washington bureau.