Interview Questions for Jewher Ilham
Adrienne Wooster (AW): It has been almost four years since you and your father were separated at the Beijing airport. What have you done to gain stability after your separation, and what have been your biggest challenges and rewards since living in the United States?
Jewher Ilham (JI): After separation from my father I contacted the U.S. government, testified in front of Congress, and met with Senators. I asked for their advice and tried to determine if there was anything they could do for my father’s case. Additionally, Professor Adam Braver from Roger Williams University worked with me to write a book about my father [and about my own experiences]. We published the book in November 2015. I have also accepted rewards on behalf of my father, written and published articles, and have spoken to journalists. The more people who know about my father’s case, the better [because awareness of his case] prevents the Chinese government from doing whatever they want to him. I do not want people forgetting about him. Even though I am in school, I do what I can to have his case not disappear into thin air. I want to always keep him in people’s minds. The biggest challenge I face in the United States is learning English. I wasn’t planning on studying in the United States when I left for the Beijing airport in 2013 – I was planning on only staying here for a month. I didn’t really speak English when I first got here. I want to speak perfect English in order to best communicate with others about my father. My father’s biggest wish was that I perform well at school, so I want to do my very best as a student as well.
AW: In 2015 you went to Washington D.C. with students from the Roger Williams University’s Student Advocacy Seminar on behalf of your father. How was that experience and what was it like to know that other students were there to help?
JI: During that trip to D.C. I went to the State Department for the first time. It was very weird for me because [of how accessible the buildings were to the public. People could basically come and go as they wished]. In China, unless you are a bureaucrat, work for the government, or are a family member [of a government official], there is almost no way you can get in to government buildings and talk with people. I was surprised we could just schedule meetings with [legislators on Capitol Hill]. It was such a new experience for me. Also, I was surprised by the students who were with me. In China we focus only on school and we don’t really think about other peoples’ business. Also, teachers will never bring you to places to fight for another student’s father’s freedom – it just doesn’t happen. If any teacher did that in China, they would lose their job. In the U.S. we talk about what happens in the world. It was amazing to realize how different U.S. society is from Chinese society.
AW: After arriving in the United States, you enrolled as a student in Indiana. What are you studying and what are your hopes and goals for the future?
JI: I am studying for a major in Arabic in Middle Eastern Studies, mainly focusing on the Arabic language. I am also double-majoring in Political Science. [Initially], I was planning on being a triple major with my third major being International Studies. However, I needed to study abroad to complete that major and [given my situation] I obviously cannot do that currently. However, my university offered me a work-study instead. Rather than major in International Relations I may pursue it as a minor along with Central Eurasian Studies. I am taking 21 credits this semester, so I am quite busy!
AW: Some have called Ilham Tohti a political hero. How would you like others to think of your father and his work?
JI: My dad is my hero. I grew up thinking that he was the smartest and strongest person in the world. I am glad that people call him a hero, but I have heard people calling him the “hero of Uyghurs” and a hero for “creating peace among the Uyghur and Han people.” “Hero” is a nice title, but I also want people to know that he is just an ordinary human being. Perhaps the reason he earned the title of “hero” is that he wasn’t thinking of being hero, he just did all these things with his heart. He also didn’t think of his work as a significant thing, he just treated it as something that everyone should do. He thought it was his duty to conduct research on the Uyghur people and other ethnic minorities. He taught classes on sociology and financial international relations. My father loved his research and he cares about everything, everyone. Lots of people call him a political activist and it made me not very happy. I didn’t really like that title, because I think my father is an academic scholar, not a political activist. I like that people think of him as a hero, but it is a little dramatic. We’re just normal people. I think my father is simply a very smart, responsible, caring, loving, and kind scholar. That’s how I would define him.