In the holding room of the Beijing airport, Jewher Ilham had a choice to make. She could remain in China with her father — detained and barred from travel — or trek to the United States alone.
“You want to go?” her father, Ilham Tohti, asked in Uighur.
All of their plans came to a halt in that holding room. Jewher was to join her father for one month at IU, where he was going to be a visiting scholar for the 2014-15 school year.
She caught her father’s stare as the room waited in silence.
Again, the airport security woman asked her for a decision.
But before she could speak, her father replied for her.
“She will go.”
He turned to see a shocked look on his daughter’s face.
“At least one person in my family should be free,” he said to her.
Jewher was whisked to the boarding platform and put on a plane to Chicago. For the next 14 hours, it was just Jewher and her father’s empty seat.
Now in the United States, Jewher is attending classes at Ivy Tech and IU. In the spring, she will be a full-time freshman.
She decided to study journalism, in honor of the work her father did in China.
Before his arrest, Ilham Tohti was a prominent scholar and professor in Beijing.
He started the blog Uighur Online in 2006, meant to bridge the levels of understanding between two ethnic groups of China, the Uighurs and the Han Chinese.
The Uighurs are an ethnic minority group in China who speak a different language and practice different customs from the Han Chinese. The majority of Uighurs are Muslim and speak a Turk-based language, which uses a different alphabet from the Chinese language.
Historically, the Chinese government has implemented an assimilationist policy toward the Uighurs, not allowing them to practice their religion or speak their language outside of certain areas.
Even now, Jewher remembers the way store owners would treat her after they found out she was Uighur, not giving her the same attention as other customers.
“In Beijing I grew up with Han Chinese students,” Jewher said. “I didn’t really have Uighur friends. With my classmates, it was fine. But when I go out of school, I can feel there are differences between how they treat me and how they treat others.”
The Uighur people have often called for independence from China and to create their own separate state.
Despite the popularity of the separatist movement, Uighur Online worked to start dialogue between the Han and Uighur people and avoid separation from China.
But in January, separatism was the very charge filed against Ilham Tohti for the work he completed on his blog.
Jewher’s father gave her all of the money he had and a card with one name and number on it. He instructed her to call the number when she arrived in the United States.
After the 14-hour flight, Jewher arrived in Chicago.
She didn’t speak a word of English and entered the country with a J2 visa, meaning she had to be accompanied by the original visa holder. That visa holder was still in Beijing.
Police escorted her away. Here she was in another country in another holding room.
All she could say was “father,” “police took away, away.”
For three more hours, she waited. No one in the airport staff could speak Chinese.
They finally asked her if she had any friends in the U.S., which she understood and handed them the card.
They called the number. On the other end of the call, Elliot Sperling, associate professor of Central Eurasian Studies at IU, picked up his phone.
Sperling was planning to meet Jewher and her father at the Indianapolis airport when they arrived from Chicago.
The night before the flight was supposed to land, Sperling heard from friends in China that Ilham had been detained at the airport in Beijing.
He was shocked and disappointed but awoke the next morning to find that Jewher would arrive alone in Indianapolis.
Sperling had long been in talks with the Department of Homeland Security and the state department to arrange for their original arrival.
Jewher would remain in the U.S.
At the time her father was detained, Jewher was never meant to permanently leave her own country.
“It was a bureaucratic mistake letting her go,” Sperling said. “And the person who let her go, I am told, was punished.”
Sperling met Jewher upon her arrival in Indianapolis and drove her back to Bloomington. They had never met before.
“My father told me, ‘You can trust this person,’” Jewher said. “I also had no choice. This is the only person that I can rely on.”
They drove back to Bloomington and Sperling tried to talk to her in Chinese. But after traveling 30 hours with no sleep and no food, Jewher could hardly think.
“My eyes were looking outside, but I was thinking of something else,” she said. “I was looking out of the car window imagining myself doing these things with my father.”
Jewher stayed at Sperling’s house that night. Her father was released the next day and she was able to Skype him.
Sperling said her demeanor changed completely after she talked to him. She became more talkative and open with him.
But back at her home in China, something was wrong.
In Beijing, Ilham remained under house arrest for two days after he was released from the airport.
He was continually harassed and threatened by the authorities, Sperling said.
Ilham was picking up his mother at the airport last year as she traveled to Beijing from Xianjing to see a doctor about her heart problems.
Ilham’s wife, mother and two sons were on their way back from the airport when they felt a sudden crash and thud from behind. Behind the wheel of the car that hit Ilham’s vehicle were police officers from the Chinese government.
Ilham stepped out and yelled that there were children and seniors in the car.
Then came the threats. Ilham’s family would be killed, the officers said, if he continued to write about the Uighurs on his blog.
Ilham continued to write and detailed the encounter with police on his site.
“He let it be known,” Sperling said. “(The event) was on the Internet right afterwards. He doesn’t shut up.”
He wrote about the Uighur situation in China and often criticized the government’s assimilation policies.
“He was never an advocate of separatism,” Sperling said. “He might be the only Uighur intellectual who was not for independence.”
Despite the lack of evidence, it didn’t stop the authorities from arresting Ilham on the afternoon of Jan. 14, 2014.
Ilham was napping in his apartment when the police arrived in his home, dragged him from the couch and beat him in front of his two young sons.
They took him away and confiscated every last item in the house, Jewher said.
The family was left with nothing, and the government stripped all of the property under his name.
Since that day in January, Ilham has been in prison. For months, no one knew where he was. Finally, after about five months, lawyers were allowed to speak with him.
He had been denied food, Sperling said, and had his legs shackled.
After nine months in prison, Ilham Tohti was brought to trial in front of a Chinese court for his alleged crimes.
The court refused to call any of his witnesses and denied his lawyers access to any evidence, Sperling said.
“Under no fair regime would this be considered an independent, just trial,” he said. “The whole situation is so disturbingly unjust, it’s almost shocking.”
Ilham was sentenced to life in prison Sept. 23.
“Everyone expected a harsh sentence, but no one expected this harsh,” Sperling said. “And even though we expected a harsh sentence, when it was announced, you felt like you’ve been hit.”
Sperling said he and other scholars close to the case expected his sentence to be around 10 years. They never expected a sentence this drastic, especially because his crimes would not be considered crimes in any democracy, he said.
The sentence sparked outrage among many in the international community. The White House, the European Union and Canada, to name a few, condemned the sentence and demanded Ilham’s release.
A well-known Chinese dissident wrote that the Chinese authorities had created the Nelson Mandela of the Uighurs by sentencing him to life in prison.
“He’s risen to the consciousness of people about political imprisonment in China,” he said. “All these things basically send a signal to the Uighurs that this is not their country; this is not a country where their culture has an equal status.”
In the U.S., even though her father has been sentenced, Jewher said she will continue to fight.
She’s spoken out in front of crowds calling for her father’s release. She has published an op-ed piece in the New York Times about her father’s role in the Uighur situation in China. She accepted the International PEN award on his behalf.
“I’m pretty sure it’s going to change,” she said. “I’m keeping hope. I don’t think my father will really stay in the jail forever.”
The work and hope all comes from the US because Jewher will not be able to return to China before she finishes her studies. If she returns, there is a good chance she would be barred from coming back to the States.
“Like my father, I spoke too much,” she said. “Everything changes so fast. I thought life would continue like this. I would study here, get my admission here, I would talk to my family on the phone every day even though they can’t visit me. Finally, when I graduate one day, I can go back and stay with them. That was my dream.”
Although her dream cannot be a reality, Jewher said she remains strong for her father and for herself.
“I have to accept this life for myself,” she said. “I have to be tough. I have to face it. I didn’t choose this life for myself, but now it’s coming to me, and I have to face it.”
Then she remembers some of her father’s last words to her back in the Beijing airport.
“At least there should be one person in my family that is free,” Jewher said.
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