Home » Culture of the Book » An excerpt from the forthcoming book ‘Jewher Ilham: A Uyghur Daughter’s Fight to Free her Father’

An excerpt from the forthcoming book ‘Jewher Ilham: A Uyghur Daughter’s Fight to Free her Father’

Please come to hear and meet Jewher Ilham at our next “Talking in the Library “ program on March 23, 2015 at 4 PM in the Mary Tefft White Cultural Center

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An excerpt from the forthcoming book Jewher Ilham: A Uyghur Daughter’s Fight to Free her Father (University of New Orleans Press, 2105; eds. Adam Braver and Ashley Barton)


On February 2nd 2013, we didn’t tell anybody.

We came.

We went to the airport.


*          *          *


My father always said, “Oh, a lot of universities in America would like me to be a professor.”

“Okay,” I said. “Okay.” I didn’t believe him. I’d thought maybe he was just saying this to impress me. He always talked like this, kind of teasing. Your dad can sing. Your dad can draw. Your dad can blah-blah-blah. I figured he was kidding when he started talking about teaching in America. One more thing.

On the evening of January 2nd, he asked me, “So, do you ever want to go to America again?” We were in our apartment in Beijing. My stepmother and two little brothers were out somewhere. I was getting ready for the winter break. It was my first year of college.

“Sure, of course I want to go again.” I’d been there once with my dance troupe when I was fourteen.

Then he looked at me with a more serious expression. “Do you want to go with me?”

I didn’t really take it as serious. My father likes to joke. Especially with me. “In the future,” I replied.

But then he showed me an invitation letter from Indiana University. It read that they were inviting him as a visiting scholar. And it said that he could take one person with him for a month. A family member. And because my stepmom couldn’t speak English, and my brothers were too little, he said I would be the best person. In the US, I could cook for him, and clean his apartment.

Maybe because I’d been to the US before, it didn’t sound as exciting. But also it was my school break. I said that. I told him, “I want to stay with my friends. We’ve been making plans.”

“Too bad. You’re coming.”

He thought I’d be super happy. America!

He added, “And we’re leaving in February.”

I didn’t want to argue with him. What could I say? Even if I’d said no, I would still have to go. It was better to say okay and make him happy, even though—and I told him this—it would be kind of boring to stay with your father in an apartment for a whole month. Cooking for him every day.


My father values education very highly, and so the majority of my time away from school was spent studying in my room or at the library. I had little time to sit and just talk to my father. Still, I knew that things weren’t right between my father and the government. My father began to be more involved in Uyghur issues; he saw clearly that the tensions between the Uyghur and Han Chinese were only escalating, so he created his website, Uyghur Online, as an open forum to ease the tension and create discourse across ethnic lines. At first the website was unfiltered; anyone could say anything: comment on any article and post any information. But my father was careful about these types of things; if extremists posted on his website, he was quick to take those posts down. His goal was not to incite violence or promote extremists’ points of view; his aim was to alleviate ethnic boundaries, and that could only be done through moderate reasoning and discussion. If opinions are too extreme it undermines the other perspectives, and that is never a good thing. My father was the token for moderate voices. But the government, they didn’t see him this way.



*          *          *



At the airport, they led us to a small room with a camera. Actually they took him.

“Where are you taking my father?” I pleaded, following them.

They ignored me. They wouldn’t talk to me at all.


Just moments earlier, we’d been standing in line, waiting to be called to the last step before boarding—having our passports stamped.

I went first with no problem. They looked up some information on the computer, and then called me forward. It only took a second. But when I looked back, my father was waiting there, still waiting to be called.

One minute.

Two minutes.

Then it had turned to ten minutes.

When my father asked what was happening, the immigration officials would repeat, We are checking, we are checking.

Finally they told my father, “Please come with us.”

“Why should I come with you?” he said. “I have done everything legally. I have all the documents. Why do you want me come with you? If you want to say anything, just say it here!” My father explained to them that our flight was waiting to board; that we had to go now, if we were going to make it.

I thought, what happens if we are not able to go there?

The immigration officer, a young man, said that if we were allowed to continue on, he’d make sure we’d still catch the flight. Don’t worry. And then they began to lead my father away.

I heard him ask, “What about my luggage? . . . What about my luggage?”

When they didn’t reply, he asked me about the bag.

I said, “Dad, is it really the time to think about that?”

“They’re not going to let me go right now,” he said. “You go ahead.” It was just a temporary hold up; he just didn’t want his baggage left behind.

I ended up with his suitcase. I hadn’t realized it would be so heavy.


I still have it. His shoes. His jackets. His sweaters. They all are with me.

Every time somebody asks, Who did you come to America with? I say, it was supposed to be my father. They say, Is he coming?

I think so, I tell them. I have his suitcase waiting.


And I followed them. That’s how we’d ended up in the room.

I was so scared! My father was such a strict man. Nobody argued with him. Never ever. But now I was seeing someone pulling my father so roughly.

“Why are you talking to my father? Why are you doing this to him?”

I was so freaked out.

So angry.

And so afraid.

My father looked at me. “Don’t cry,” he commanded. He saw my tears welling. They could fall at any moment. “Don’t cry.”

Because I never faced this kind of situation before I was scared I would forget everything. If they are mistreating my father, I thought, I have to have evidence. So I turned on my phone. And I began to record.

It was a very small room with no windows, like the size of a bathroom. There was one camera. Two chairs without backs. And one guy who kept watch, sitting with us, making sure I would not run away.

“Why you are doing this to me?” my father said to the guard. “I have everything authorized.”

“We only are following the legal steps.”

My father looked like he could burst. “I have the full legal steps. Why don’t you let me go?”

“We are checking. We are checking.”

We sat there for two hours in that little room in the Beijing airport, listening to the immigration officers repeat we are checking, we are checking.

All I could think is: What is going on? How are they going to treat us? Are we going to jail?

We only had to do was get on the plane. Then we could go to Indiana. It should have been so simple.

We didn’t do anything wrong.

I was so confused. My mind went very messy.