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Uyghur IU student fights to free father Ilham Tohti from imprisonment in China



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Jewher Ilham is a senior majoring in political science, Central Eurasian studies and Arabic. She is graduating this spring. Sam House Buy Photos

Jewher Ilham hadn’t heard from her dad for many years, not even in her dreams. But she thought it was probably for the best. In Chinese superstition, when one is on their deathbed, they visit their dear ones in their dreams before departure.

Ilham tried not to think about him too much. Remembering him was suffocating, and it hurt. How was he doing? Where was he? Was he dressing warm in the cold weather? Was he even alive?

She didn’t know and wasn’t sure if she was ever going to know.

Ilham is 25 and graduating from IU in May. When she walks across the stage at the graduation ceremony, when thousands of parents filling the stadium applaud her years of dedication, the person who would cheer for her hardest will be absent.

Before 13 congressmen nominated her father for the Nobel Peace Prize, before the reeducation camps for Chinese minorities sparked controversy, before activist groups sprung up around the world to fight for her dad’s freedom, before she stepped into the spotlight, Ilham was just a 18-year-old college freshman in China, carefree and awkward in front of boys.

She still remembers the day when her fate took a cruel twist. Her father, the Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti, was on his way to Bloomington to take a visiting scholar position at IU when he was detained at the Beijing airport for being a what authorities called a separatist. Ilham had to embark on the trip to the United States completely on her own.

On that day, her world shattered and everything she cherished or hoped for became a pipe dream.

***

Feb. 2, 2013. Ilham sank in a chair in a windowless holding room at Chicago O’Hare airport. She had waited for a long time before being taken to this room no bigger than a bathroom. She couldn't use her electronic devices. The passing of time became unfathomable.

Two security officers with solemn faces came into the room and sat in front of her across a desk, asking questions in English she could barely understand. She racked her brain for phrases she had learned from textbooks when she heard a fragment: “send back to China.”

She was on a dependent visa, meaning she could not enter the United States alone without her dad’s company. But her dad had been detained in Beijing.

What did that even mean? If she got sent back to Beijing, she could be with her dad again. But it had been almost a day since she’d seen him, and as the authorities held him back, he had just shoved her away and hollered at her to go.

Her nose started to tingle. In her 18 years of life, she had never had to deal with bigger obstacles than getting good grades and making her parents happy. The situation was beyond her comprehension.

Then she heard another word she knew – “contact.”

She suddenly remembered the stack of name cards her dad gave her before departure. The name cards belonged to journalists, ambassadors, professors and other people Ilham didn’t remember. Her dad said she might need them in the future, but Ilham thought he was just being paranoid.

She took a card out of her wallet and gave it to the officers. That card belonged to Elliot Sperling, associate professor of Central Eurasian Studies at IU. She had only heard this name once — he was the one who had invited her dad to the United States.

The security officers called Sperling. He was a prestigious professor with connections in the White House and the State Department. He pulled some strings, and Ilham was released. He would pick her up in Indianapolis.

An officer walked her to her gate to board a plane to Indianapolis. On the way, the kind woman took her to a familiar place for her first meal in 48 hours. It was McDonald’s. The hamburger and fries tasted like the most delicious food in the world.

She couldn’t close her eyes without seeing her dad — the prestigious Uyghur scholar whose lectures students would travel for hours to attend, the smartest and bravest person she’d ever known, the sky and the mountain for her — being pulled and held in front of her as if he were a criminal.

She was furious, scared, but more heartbroken. She couldn’t imagine how they would treat her dad like this. She wondered if they would arrest him, beat him or torture him.

Questions were bullets, pounding her.

Would they kill him?

She didn’t know if he would be safe or if she was going to see him again.

As if the situation was not pressing enough, a bigger question loomed.

What happens next?

** *

Three days later, in Sperling’s house, she finally got in contact with her dad. He had been placed under house arrest.

She told him she didn’t want to stay in Bloomington, that she wanted to go back.

“Stay there.” Her dad’s answer was not to be questioned. “Don’t come back.”

“No! I’m going back before the winter break ends.”

She could be stubborn, too.

Her dad’s voice softened.

“Go to the English school there,” he said. “You can take one year off college and see if you like it. If you don’t like it, you can still come back after a year, you know.”

She would fall behind her classmates if she took a year off. She wanted to say no, but she had grown up listening to his every order. She thought the world of him.

“I have to study math here,” she said. “Do you know how terrible I am at math?” Her major in China didn’t require her to take any math courses.

“You are my daughter,” he said. “And you are supposed to figure it out.”

Snap. That was her last bargaining chip.

Her new life in Bloomington began.

She spent a month in Sperling’s house, and then he helped her move into a dorm at Forest Quadrangle. Eventually, in a town she hadn’t planned to stay in longer than two weeks, she had to unpack her suitcases.

** *

She started from nothing. Studying in a foreign language was one of the biggest hurdles. Sperling signed her up for an intensive English program. She studied English for a year and half and then applied to IU.

She had always hated studying. Chinese students were force-fed template answers and given few opportunities to think critically. She was used to following a path paved by teachers and parents. She had never really considered what she wanted.

The misadventure gifted her with a second chance.

She tried prelaw, journalism, psychology, but none of them really interested her. Then she took a course on Central Eurasia. That’s the region where the Uyghurs originated.

The Uyghurs, based in Xinjiang Province, are one of the 55 ethnic minority groups in China. The Uyghur people have a drastically different appearance, language and culture from the Han Chinese, who account for 92 percent of the total population.

Even though Ilham was born to Uyghur parents, she was raised in Beijing and never fully exposed to her culture. She went to school with Han classmates, and she grew up speaking Mandarin. Uyghurs primarily practice Islam, but she was not religious at all. She wore short sleeves and skirts just like other girls in her class. The only exception was that she didn’t eat pork.

She didn’t know why her classmates picked on her. She just looked different.

Xinjiang people are often stereotyped as ill-mannered thieves. In middle school, if somebody’s stuff got stolen, they’d sometimes suspect her. It baffled and frustrated Ilham.

“I have more pocket money than you do, why would I steal your stuff?”

If somebody had smelly feet, they’d suspect her. “I shower every day, okay?” she would say. “I smell better than you.”

She had never been around many Uyghurs except for her parents. She looked forward to visiting Xinjiang, her parents’ hometown where Uyghurs cluster. There, she thought, she would for once look like everybody else. But then she met the real Uyghurs.

Except for her looks, she was nothing like them.

She spoke only the basics of the Uyghur language and didn’t even know how to greet in a proper Uyghur way.

Uyghur women hug and kiss each other on the cheeks and greet with good luck and prosperous wishes. But all she knew was “yahshimsiz,” which means hello.

Too Uyghur among the Hans, yet too Han among the Uyghurs — she was an outsider.

In Bloomington, Ilham learned to read and speak the Uyghur language, and that helped her locate a sense of belonging.

Now she decided what courses she took and what she wanted to major in, with more ambition, at her own discretion.

It was a blessing in disguise, she realized. But only for her, not for her family.

***

The first year in Bloomington, her heart was still in China.

She Skyped with her dad everyday during breakfast, lunch and dinner. When the sun rose here, it fell on the other side of the world, where he would stay up and wait in front of the computer for his daughter to finish classes so he could bombard her with questions.

“What did you wear today?”

“What socks did you wear to match with your dress?”

“Did you eat your broccoli?”

Two digital screens and 13 time zones apart, they were just like any other impatient daughter and fussy parent.

He told her not to go back to China even if he asked her to.

“Because what I say is probably not what I mean.”

In Xinjiang, reeducation camps hold hundreds of thousands of Chinese Muslims, including Uyghurs, in order to “counter terrorism and extremism.” These camps are compared to concentration camps by international media.

Nobody knows for sure what would happen to Ilham if she returned to China, said Uyghur expert and IU professor Gardener Bovingdon. She could either be sent to the reeducation camps or be used as an example to serve some agenda.

“But she has zero chance of going back and just having an ordinary life of a Chinese citizen,” Bovingdon said.

Jewher Ilham watches as a dance group she is coaching practices its routine. The group was practicing for a Chinese New Year event. Sam House Buy Photos

One afternoon in January 2014, her freshman year at IU, Sperling knocked on her door. She hadn’t slept well the night before, so she was napping.

“Your phone was off so I thought I’d come to tell you in person,” he said. “Your dad was arrested.”

It took her several seconds to process his words.

“What do you mean?” She was confused. “He is already under house arrest.”

She turned on her laptop. It was all over the news.

Her dad had been taken away during a house raid, and all his property was confiscated.

Sperling took her to his house, where they turned on all computers and mobile devices to monitor the news and Twitter. She called her family and her father’s friend in China.No one answered.

She skipped classes to watch on Twitter all day, and she got phone calls from reporters asking how she felt about her father being arrested.

She didn’t know how to answer. How would anybody feel about their father being arrested?

In March, she got a phone call from Congress asking her to testify about what her father had been through in China. She debated it for weeks, with a glimmer of hope that he would be released.

In the past, her dad had been taken away, but he always came back in a month or so. She waited and waited, hoping for the same this time. But weeks had passed, she didn’t even know where he was.

On April 8, 2014, Ilham testified in front of Congress.

“The only truth that I do believe is that my dad is not a separatist,” Ilham said. “He knew China is such a great and powerful country and tried to help enhance the relationships between us and Han and decrease the problems between us.”

The Chinese media had repeatedly distorted Tohti, she said. Once he was reported to be caught meeting two American spies in the bathroom.

“Oh that must have been my brothers then,” Ilham thought. “Are my 4-year-old and 7-year-old little brothers spies from America?”

On Sept. 23, 2014, the darkness fell upon her, and her world caved in.

Tohti was sentenced to life in prison on the charge of separatism, and for being “a threat to state security,” and “an enemy of the state.”

She never hated politics more than she did at the moment, but that hatred only deepened later. She realized, in the black waters of politics, no one can get out uncontaminated.

All of the sudden all the pieces started to come together.

Her dad had never talked much about what he did, but sometimes she saw journalists at home when she came back from boarding school. He would always disappear for two weeks or a month and came back telling her that Daddy had been on a business trip. She never understood what he was doing, but occasionally, after a couple beers, he’d let it slip about how much pressure he felt.

He was worried that he might harm his family, but Uyghurs were his family, too.

He said maybe one day Daddy would go to jail.

“Is my dad paranoid?” she had thought.

One time, during the Ürümqi riots in July 2009, the whole family, including her, had been taken away to a resort in Beijing and cut off from the outside world for a month.

“Maybe it’s just because we are Uyghurs,” she said. “Things can get a little sensitive with us.”

He used to drink every day when she was in middle school. One night he asked her to run to the store and buy beer for him, and that enraged her.

“I’m a girl, and you’re not supposed to let me get beer for you at night,” she yelled at him. “You don’t care about this family and you just care about your computer and your students.”

She slammed the door of and stayed in her bedroom. Her words broke his heart that night and later hers as well.

“He probably just didn’t want his students to see him buying beer,” she said. “I should’ve been more understanding, should’ve been more supportive. I should’ve been a better kid for him.”

** *

One day in 2014 in the middle of the chaos, she got random Facebook messages from a couple of students at Rogers Williams University who were doing a class project about her dad. She was suspicious for a moment before being convinced and arranging a Skype meeting. Their professor, Adam Braver, invited her to an event hosted by “Scholars at Risk,” an international NGO supporting academic freedom.

She boarded a plane to Washington, D.C., attended meetings and spoke with a senator. Somehow, she just trusted these strangers.

After a few meetings, Braver suggested she write a book about her relationship with her dad.

She was hesitant — her English was limited and she knew nothing about book publishing. Braver said he would take care of everything.

Braver found the publisher, helped with edits and convinced Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown to write the foreword.

After a few round-trip tickets from Indiana to Rhode Island, Ilham's autobiography was published in November 2015.

It was a small and easy book, like a diary but with more pictures. Many readers were children. They would tag her on social media and meet her at events.

She didn’t know when she could see her dad again or when her memories would fade, but now she had something that would last.

Her Chinese social media accounts — QQ, Wechat, Weibo and blogs — have been hacked many times.

She had to be cautious with her words, not just in her book, but also on social media and interviews. Any political statement could harm her family. Her little brothers were too young to take any more repercussions.

“I also have to make sure of my own safety,” she said. “Because as long as I am safe here, there’s more hope in my father’s case.”

Ilham didn’t want people to think of her as a political activist, and she still didn’t want to become one.

Jewher Ilham directs a dance group in preparation for a Chinese New Year performance. Ilham is a political science, Central Eurasian studies and Arabic triple major at IU. Sam House Buy Photos

Food, dancing and family are Ilham's top three priorities. Family is out of reach, so she clings to the other two.

When she started living on her own, she didn’t know how to cook anything but ramen. Years later, the limited Chinese food options in Bloomington have turned her into a self-proclaimed chef. Pilaf is one of her signature Xinjiang dishes.

It was also one of her dad’s favorites.

In Ilham's memory, Dad was a foodie with a big belly. Back home, when she couldn’t cook at all, her dad was over the moon about a salad she made.

“My daughter made me food,” he even bragged to his friends.

Now she regrets not learning to cook earlier.

Ilham joined an IU dance club, D-Force, her first year in Bloomington. The club consists of mostly Chinese members. Some team members have become close friends.

“If I don’t do this, I might not be able to breathe with all the pressure,” she said.

She had always wanted to be a dancer, since she started dancing at 5. But her dad, strict and conventional, didn’t want his daughter to be an artist and would rather she become a lawyer or a doctor.

He never knew that his daughter was an exceptional dancer.

“It’ll disappoint my dad if he knew,” Ilham said.

She also met Sperling, whom she considers to be her second father in Bloomington. He was positive, encouraging and the solution to all Ilham's problems.

“Without him, I can’t imagine what kind of person I would turn out to be and what kind of life I would have,” she said.

She told him about her first boyfriend but didn’t tell her mom and dad. She told him when she failed her English exam and asked him to keep the secret from her dad.

“I promised not to tell him this time,” he said. “But you have to do well next time.”

She called him Elliot Uncle and shared every secret with him. When he saw her ex-boyfriend standing with another girl, he took a picture and sent it to her.

Once she was at a coffee shop with a boy when she saw someone familiar sitting far away and covering his face with a book.

“I saw you,” she walked over and confronted him. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh Jewher,” he acted surprised. “I didn’t know you were here, too. What a coincidence.”

Then Sperling died unexpectedly in 2017 at the age of 66.

Suddenly, Ilham was on her own.

***

Last year, 300 people petitioned to nominate Tohti for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Most of the world still doesn’t know he exists, but everyone who knows political prisoners in China and everyone who cares about the status of Uyghurs knows about him, said Bovingdon, the IU professor. And more and more people are becoming aware of the Uyghurs and the re-education camps in Xinjiang.

After her dad was arrested, people flocked to Ilham. Activists, journalists, media groups, NGOs and people whose profession she didn’t even know.

“You need to do something,” they told her. “We need to do something.”

Ilham never fully comprehended her dad’s influence until he received several small awards for his contribution to Uyghur rights.

People she didn’t know sprang up on social media, lobbying, networking and bringing the case to famous people. Many of them didn’t know each other. Thoti was the glue that held them together.

Even though Ilham doesn’t think her father will win the Nobel Prize, getting nominated was a big deal.

Ilham did her best to attend every event that put a spotlight on her dad. She wanted her father’s name to be ingrained in history, even if it’s just a speck. She wanted people to remember him, not for the fame but for his safety.

“The more attention he gets, the less harm he could possibly get,” Ilham said. “The Chinese government cares about how people think.”

With the reeducation camps trending on the major news sites, more recognition has come not only to the arrested Uyghur scholar, but also to the entire Uyghur community.

Sometimes, however, she wasn’t sure if she was doing the right thing or if it was worth risking her own life and her family’s life.

She thought about quitting. Then she would think about her dad, who never did.

He knew he might go to jail. He was harassed and threatened. He knew he could hurt his three children. But he didn’t stop.

“No matter if it’d make a difference or not, at least I tried,” Ilham said.

Politics still makes her sick. But it doesn’t matter anymore if she likes it or not.

** *

Feb. 7, 2019, two days after the Chinese New Year. Ilham's dance team was rehearsing for the New Year Gala at IU.

The music faded in. Ilham stood in front of dozens of Chinese girls, arms crossed, lips pursed. The girls were performing a traditional Chinese sleeve dance. Ilham's glances were sharpened, like an eagle, scrutinizing their moves. Their long and flowy sleeves gracefully cast up and down. But Ilham was not satisfied.

She graduates in May, and this was to be her last performance with the dance team. She wanted it to be perfect.

She listed the minor flaws she noticed: wrong rhythm, spotty pace, lesser body strength. She told them to manage their facial expressions, that they should be telling but implicit, like a budding flower. She told them to sway gracefully, like princesses, not minions.

The girls listened closely.

Then the music started again, and another round of inspection began. Then another and another.

After about the fifth time, Ilham finally smiled.

When she was dancing, she was not the daughter of the arrested scholar. She could be herself, twirling so lightly as if nothing heavy had ever happened in her life.

Ever since her dad’s arrest, everybody around Ilham had expected her to take on the responsibility of advocating for him.

Gradually, as she saw how far she had come and what she had accomplished, she started wondering where her life was going.

She had doubts and asked herself if she was happy. She’d gained the influence to make a small difference. Should she give up on all the effort she had already put in?

The answer was another question.

“My dad can sacrifice his life for the entire Uyghur, why can’t I sacrifice myself for him?”

Most questions don’t have a definitive answer. She has accepted that advocating for her dad and her people had become part of her. It’s her career, her life, her past, her present and her future. It’s her everything.

“My new purpose in life is to release my dad.”

She misses him every day. Everything triggers memories of him, and every day she wants to tell him what is happening in her life. She’d like to cook for him. He’d be so proud of her pilaf.

She just wants to sit with him. They don’t even have to do anything, maybe drink a cup of tea.

“We may say nothing,” Ilham said. “Or maybe we say everything.”

A previous version of this story misidentified Elliot Sperling as a dean instead of an associate professor. The IDS regrets this error.

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