On each step of their journey from northwestern China to Northern Virginia, the family believed they would be stopped. They were used to being followed. They expected to be tracked.
So it goes in Xinjiang, where the Chinese government has targeted Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims, turning a vast region into a laboratory for mass surveillance and building a network of internment camps.
Not many Uighurs escape the checkpoints and security cameras. Fewer still make it all the way to the United States.
But Zumrat Dawut, her husband, Imran Muhammad, and their three children got out. Dawut, who survived internment and an unwanted sterilization, fled first with her family to her husband’s native Pakistan. The next leg of their journey took them to a basement apartment in Virginia outside Washington.
They spent their first American summer strolling through shopping malls and savoring Popeyes’ halal fried chicken. “Here in U.S., people have human rights. People live like real human beings,” Dawut said.
They have applied for asylum in the United States. They want, desperately, to stay.
But their case — which recently caught the attention of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — raises tough questions for the Trump administration as it vows to take a harder line on China while simultaneously seeking a trade deal with Beijing.
The United States has roundly condemned the internment camps in Xinjiang. But will it take in those who endured Beijing’s chokehold on the region and somehow reached the United States?
“It seems that the U.S. government, particularly the State Department and Congress, is very concerned about the situation,” said Sean Roberts, an associate professor of the practice of international affairs at George Washington University. “On the other hand, the administration is generally making it more difficult to make asylum cases.”
This autumn, as Dawut, Muhammad and their children settle into the new world of Dale City, Va., they are left to wonder whether their new home will be the haven they hoped it would become.
Crackdowns well documented
The situation in Xinjiang is now well known: The Chinese government has embarked on a systematic campaign to strip Uighurs of their culture, language and religion. To “Sinicize” them by force.
It has done that by detaining more than 1 million people in internment camps, according to the U.S. government and human rights groups. In the camps, they are taught about the supposed dangers of Islam and forced to pledge allegiance to the Communist Party and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, according to those who were held.
Beijing at first denied the existence of the camps, then, facing criticism, said they are for “vocational education and training” and have helped create a safer society.
Human rights advocates and many governments, including that of the United States, have decried the camps and called on Chinese officials to allow independent investigations.
The U.S. Department of Commerce has banned the sale of American products to 28 Chinese companies and government entities accused of involvement in repression in Xinjiang.
The State Department has called on China to end its “highly repressive campaign” and has imposed visa restrictions on officials believed to be involved in repression. In a recent speech on religious freedom, Pompeo mentioned Dawut’s case.
The White House, though, has said little about Xinjiang, even though the situation there encompasses many of Washington’s core concerns about China.
It has also taken aim at would-be refugees and immigrants, particularly those from majority-Muslim countries.
President Trump in September decided to slash the number of refugees the United States will accept in the next year to 18,000 from the previous quota of 30,000. Announcing the change, U.S. officials cited a backlog of asylum cases.
A phone call
For Dawut, like many others, the ordeal started with a call from the police.
In March 2018, she was at home in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, when she was told to report to a local station.
She was led to a cold basement and tied by her wrists and ankles to a metal chair. Over the next 24 hours, she was interrogated about calls to and from her cellphone and about bank transactions she had made, according to her account.
After a day, she was moved — black hood over her head, still shackled — in a police van to a medical center and then on to a detention camp. She said she was forced to change into prison clothes in front of men.
Eventually, she was taken to a cramped cell filled with so many women that they had to lie down in shifts, she said. By day, they were forced to recite propaganda and praise Chinese leader Xi.
She was held for 62 days, a stay that might have been longer, she believes, had her husband not been pressing Pakistani diplomats for help to obtain her release.
When she was let go, she was forced to sign documents agreeing not to practice her religion and not to tell anyone what had happened in the camp.
After her detention, she was forced to pay a fine of more than $2,500 for breaking China’s family planning rules by having three, not two, children.
She was then told the government was offering her a free, surgical sterilization — a procedure she did not want but was terrified to refuse lest she be detained again.
On Oct. 22, 2018, a local official escorted her to the hospital, and she underwent surgery.
Dawut wept recalling the operation and thinking of the fourth child she longed for but would never have. “They want the extinction of Uighurs,” she said.
Stories like Dawut’s have become familiar since China started interning Uighurs and others. What is unusual about hers is that she is telling it from Virginia.
It is difficult for Uighurs to travel. Neighborhoods are blanketed with cameras. Checkpoints seal off towns. In recent years, many have been denied passports, and some have had to surrender their travel documents to police.
Dawut’s family had passports, so they started pressing local officials for permission to travel to Pakistan to visit her husband’s father, who was ill. Eventually, local authorities gave them permission to exit the country — so long as they returned by Feb. 27, 2019.
the plight of the Uighurs
“Don’t delay; just contact them now.”
Zumrat Dawut’s brother in an audio message, referring to Chinese police
“With the Uighurs, it is pretty much an open-and-shut case because the simple fact that they have traveled abroad means they would be in danger if they went back to China.”
James Millward, a professor of inter-societal history at Georgetown University
“They want the extinction of Uighurs.”
Zumrat Dawut, referring to China
In late January, the family traveled to the airport in Urumqi, convinced they would be interrogated and turned back. Instead, they cleared security and boarded a flight to Islamabad.
“Pinch me and let me feel if this is real,” Dawut recalled saying to her husband.
In Pakistan, they were able to access websites, such as YouTube, that are blocked in China. They realized, for the first time, the full extent of what was happening in China. They knew they could not return — but feared for the safety of their relatives if they stayed away.
When the family failed to return to China, Dawut received frantic messages from her brother saying the police were asking about her and questioning her father.
“Don’t delay; just contact them now,” the brother said in an audio message sent using WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging app. “We shouldn’t get in trouble for this.” Soon after, they lost touch with each other.
Dawut and Muhammad did not, however, feel safe in Pakistan. The country has received a huge influx of investment from China, and leaders of the majority-Muslim country have been unusually quiet on the mass detention of Muslims just across the border. They feared that Pakistani officials would deport Dawut.
“Pakistan is already a mini-China,” Muhammad said.
Luckily, the family had another option. As a relatively prosperous foreign trader, Muhammad had traveled internationally, including to the United States. In August 2016, he obtained U.S. tourist visas for his entire family, hoping to take a holiday. The visas, valid for multiple entries over 10 years, now were their key to escape.
On April 2, the family boarded a flight from Islamabad to Dulles International Airport in Virginia and settled into a friend’s basement. They have since rented a modest rowhouse in the D.C. suburb of Dale City, Va., and are adjusting, slowly, to life outside a police state.
In Virginia, unlike Urumqi, children can go to the mosque. They can eat halal food without drawing suspicion.
“They love it here,” Muhammad said. “They’ve got this home; they don’t have to report to anybody.”
Story raised at the United Nations
But Dawut has learned that challenging China’s narrative on Xinjiang can be dangerous, even if you do it from the United States.
When she escaped Xinjiang, Dawut was determined to speak out about Beijing’s heavy hand.
Soon after she arrived on U.S. soil, a Uighur friend connected her with a reporter at The Washington Post. In a number of interviews, she said she was angry about what was happening in Xinjiang and felt compelled to share her story.
But as she settled in, she became more, not less, afraid. People warned her that if she went public, the Chinese authorities may go after her.
In 2018, for instance, China detained relatives of four U.S.-based reporters for Radio Free Asia in apparent retaliation for their coverage of internment camps in China.
When a Uighur woman testified at a hearing held by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China and later spoke to CNN, China’s Communist Party-controlled media broadcast a segment in which her mother and brother disavowed her account of events. “It was a lie,” her brother said to the camera.
Dawut agonized about what to do. At one point, she asked that The Post shelve the story because she feared for her family in China.
But staying quiet hurt in its own way. In detention, she had wondered why the world was not saying more about what was happening in Xinjiang. “After I got out of China, I thought that I must be their voice,” she said.
She decided to go public. In September, she shared her story at a State Department panel discussion on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In October, in a speech at the Vatican, Pompeo cited Dawut’s case as an example of religious persecution in China.
On Oct. 12, a former neighbor sent a message saying that Dawut’s father, who had been interrogated many times, had died. The circumstances of his death are still not clear.
The next day, the Global Times, a Communist Party-controlled news outlet, published a story rebutting Pompeo’s testimony with a social media post featuring another of Dawut’s brothers.
In a video, he says he “recently learned’ about Pompeo’s speech — strange, given that stories critical of Beijing are routinely scrubbed from the Internet in China. He then addresses the U.S. secretary of state directly, calling his Vatican speech “an outright lie.”
He goes on to say that his sister was never sent to a “vocational and education training center” — the term Chinese officials use to describe the camps — and that she was treated for “myoma of the uterus” and was not sterilized.
The family confirmed that the man in the video is Dawut’s brother but said they believe he spoke under duress.
In a statement Nov. 5, Pompeo condemned China for harassing family members of “Uighur Muslim activists and survivors of Xinjiang internment camps who have made their stories public.”
The Foreign Ministry in Beijing declined to comment on Dawut’s case, instead referring The Post to the video of her brother. Authorities in Xinjiang did not respond to requests for comment.
In Washington, the State Department said that the Trump administration was committed to advancing religious freedom internationally and had prioritized the admission of refugees who had been persecuted for their religious beliefs.
But activists and others have said the Trump administration could be doing far more to help people like Dawut and her family.
For many, the process takes three or four years, creating hardships for those awaiting work permits and the ability to travel.
“It would be very helpful if they could simply staff the immigration agencies properly so the initial interviews could be done in a timely manner,” said James Millward, a professor of inter-societal history at Georgetown University who has been closely following the plight of the Uighurs.
“This makes life difficult for these people the administration says they are trying to help,” Millward said. “With the Uighurs, it is pretty much an open-and-shut case because the simple fact that they have traveled abroad means they would be in danger if they went back to China.”
Muhammad wants to establish a business and get back to work but needs to regularize his status in the country to do so.
For now, he and his family are among the many left to wait. “We are very worried,” Muhammad said.
In his speech at the Vatican, Pompeo suggested that the United States would stand with the family.
“In front of that crowd in New York City, she cried while recounting her torture,” Pompeo said of Dawut. “But she wasn’t alone. God was with her. And America was with her, too.”