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MERRILLVILLE | When activist Betty Mahmoody heard her daughter Mahtob's response that the girl's estranged father had died at age 70 in Tehran, Iran, on Aug. 23, 2009, she was surprised.

"Mahtob said she felt her father had actually died 20 years earlier, the night he came into her bedroom when our family was on what we thought was a two-week vacation visit to his family in Iran and we were told we were never leaving his country," Mahmoody told more than 200 guests Sunday at a Merrillville charity event.

"She never saw her father again after the night we escaped to Turkey to get back to the U.S. And Mahtob said even though he just died, she'd had 20 years to grieve his death."

Mahmoody, who last visited Northwest Indiana in April 1992 to speak at Valparaiso University, was the inaugural speaker at the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association's First Literary Lecture, which benefited the Lake County Public Library and The Caring Place shelter for victims of domestic violence.

Mahmoody's best-selling 1987 book "Not Without My Daughter" led to Sally Field starring as Betty in the 1991 film.

Mahmoody, 65, lives in Michigan and has spent the past two decades raising awareness about human rights. Her remarkable story of survival details her U.S. marriage to Iranian physician Sayyed Bozorg Mahmoody in 1984.

Upon her arrival to Iran, Mahmoody said she suddenly knew how it felt to be illiterate. She was blindsided by her husband's declaration they would not be returning to the United States. She quickly discovered that as a woman in the Middle East at that time she had no rights.

After 18 months of being held hostage and beaten, a 500-mile escape led her and her daughter, who is now 32, back to U.S. safety.

"March is National Women's History Month and Betty's story is ideal for others to learn from when it comes to survival," said Lou Gikas, one of the event organizers from the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association. "Hers is the story of empowerment."

George Stroguiludis, who also helped select this year's speaker, said Mahmoody's book has been translated into 70 languages, which is proof others relate to her story.

"Iran was a strange and fascinating place and I did learn from the culture and the people," Mahmoody said. "But when we finally managed to get home, it wasn't the end, it was just the beginning."

Mahmoody said her daughter had to attend school under assumed names and investigators and the U.S. State Department kept her informed of any possible threats by her estranged husband.

"The night before Sept. 11, 2001, I was informed that he had a green card and was not only back in the U.S., but he was just a few blocks away from my house in Michigan," she said.

"After he was eventually placed on a terrorist list, he was never allowed back to the U.S."

Mahmoody said she still has some contact with some of her late ex-husband's family, the members who were sympathetic to her plight and now live in Australia.

"The saddest part of the story is that he never saw his daughter again," she said. "But through it all, I always assured Mahtob that her father did love her and care about her, despite what decisions he made."