A group of undergraduates at Roger Williams University have taken up the cause of an imprisoned Chinese dissident. And in the process they formed a special bond with his college-aged daughter. Rhode Island Public Radio education reporter Elisabeth Harrison reports the group was recently reunited at the Roger Williams campus in Bristol.
A small group of students sits on low couches in the library at Roger Williams University, just before lunchtime. One of them is a petite 20-year-old from China, with long, black hair and round cheeks. Her name is Jewher Ilham.
The biggest clue that Ilham is not just any college student is that she’s wearing a business-like blue dress and a white jacket. She’s dressed that way because she just met with a congressman and a senator about her father, Ilham Tohti. He’s an economist serving a life sentence in a China for speaking out about the Uighur people, a mainly Muslim ethnic minority that faces discrimination. When Chinese authorities detained him at Beijing almost two years ago his daughter was with him. Her voice gets quiet describing that time.
“They suddenly took my father away and I didn’t know what to do,” said Ilham. “I don’t know how to help him.”
At her father’s urging, Ilham boarded the flight they were supposed to take together and eventually landed in Indiana, where her father would have been a visiting scholar. She soon found herself repeating the story of his detainment to journalists, at all hours of the day and night.
“7 to 8 or around 9 every morning,” said Ilham. “Journalists. ‘Hi is this Jewher?’ ‘Hi is this jeher?’ Even at 3a.m., 4a.m. this way.”
It was around the same time that a class from Roger Williams University, along with Writer-in-Residence Adam Braver, also reached out.
“They were working with a group called Scholars at Risk, which advocates for intellectuals who face threats because of things they say or write,” said Braver.
“There was something so relatable about this story,” said Roger Williams senior Ashely Barton.
Barton said they were moved by the idea of a student their own age, alone in a foreign country, fighting for her father’s freedom.
“I could never imagine myself being 19-years-old, flying to a country I’d never been, where I don’t know the language, where I’m just fully immersing myself into this culture that I know nothing about, and I’ve lost the one person who was supposed to go with me on this journey,” said Barton.
She and several other Roger Williams students journeyed to Washington, D.C., where they met Ilham in person for the first time. She remembers the moment they picked her up at the airport.
“We never met before. They took me from airport,” said Ilham.
“It sounds like we kidnapped you!” said Barton with a laugh.
The students didn’t kidnap Ilham, but they did take her to meet Congress people and advocacy groups to press for action on behalf of her father. They requested letters of support and news coverage, in the hope that international scrutiny would force the Chinese government to treat Ilham’s father more fairly. Roger Williams Senior Jennifer Iacobino said since that time, the case has become much more than a class project.
“It wasn’t just something we did once a year, it wasn’t just someone on the other side of the world that needed our help,” said Iacobino. “It became a friend that needed our help, our friend’s father, so I think it just became very personal.”
Ilham’s story was featured in major media outlets from the BBC to The New York Times. But Chinese authorities did not relent. Her father was sentenced to life in prison last September. And because she has been so vocal in the media, Ilham now fears it would be dangerous for her to return to China. She remains uncertain when she might see her family again, and lately, her father’s lawyers tell her he is losing weight in prison.
“I wrote a small letter to him and the lawyer give it to him and my father said one sentence: let her study hard. This is the only thing he said to me,” said Ilham.
So, Ilham is studying hard, learning English and taking university courses. She continues to advocate for her father by meeting with elected officials and speaking publicly, as she did on her visit to Roger Williams University. She and the students who have become her friends are pushing for her family to be able to visit her father more frequently. And Senior Caitlin Holton said their activism has brought more visibility to the issue of free speech at the Roger Williams campus.
“You don’t really think about it because you live in American and you have those freedoms that other people who live in other places don’t have those freedoms,” said Holton.
Roger Williams Writer-In Residence Adam Braver is working on a book about Ilham based on a series of interviews, which is due out this summer. And the students say they will keep fighting for her father even after they graduate.
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