On a summer afternoon nearly four years ago, Maryam Muhammet thought her family’s long journey to freedom was almost complete. The Uyghur woman had arrived in Istanbul from Egypt weeks prior with her two sons, a toddler and an infant, after fleeing the Chinese region of Xinjiang. Her husband had not yet joined the family in Turkey. The couple had heard from others in their community that Egyptian immigration officials—ostensibly acting at the behest of the Chinese government—were hassling Uyghur men as they left, so they decided he would come later, on his own.
That afternoon, he sent Muhammet a WhatsApp message to say he was en route to the port and would travel by ship to Turkey. Soon, they would be together. But the tone of his updates quickly changed. He had encountered problems, and officials were taking him away. He loved her, he wrote. His last message came through at 6:06 p.m. “I will not lose faith in God,” he texted. He never made it to Istanbul.
Muhammet describes the following days—alone, in a strange new city—as the darkest period of her life. Previously in regular contact with her husband, she initially hoped his silence somehow meant he was on his way. But days turned into a week, then a week into two. For a while, she did little beyond clutching her boys, crying over her uncertain future. She assumed that the worst had happened, that her husband was now in the hands of the Chinese authorities. Her mother-in-law would later confirm her suspicions. [Continue reading…]