Melbourne, Australia – The proud father of Lutifeier Wumaier says his little boy, who turns two in August, loves dinosaurs, cartoons and playing on the family’s iPad.
But 28-year-old Sadam Abdusalam has never met his son in person because Lutfy was born in China’s far western province of Xinjiang, where at least one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are being held in what China says are vocational schools necessary to prevent “extremism” and critics say are detention centres.
Abdusalam’s then-pregnant wife, Nadila Wumaier, who comes from Urumqi, travelled to the territory from Turkey in April 2017 and found herself unable to leave when the Chinese authorities seized her passport.
“China didn’t put my name on his birth certificate,” Abdusalam told Al Jazeera in an interview. “It’s like I don’t exist.”
For months, Abdulsalam has been urging China to allow Lutfy and his wife Wumaier, to be allowed to return to Australia and now he is stepping up his campaign.
On Tuesday, he travelled to Canberra to press his case with senior Australian parliamentarians from both the government and opposition.
“Most of the parliament members, senators, they almost cried after hearing my story,” he told Al Jazeera.
These two young Australians, Aslam and Sadam, part of Australia’s 3,000 strong Uyghur community at Parliament House meeting with MP’s and seeking to be reunited with their wives and, in Sadam’s case, the 2 year old son he’s never seen. Australia has opened its heart @amnestyOz pic.twitter.com/8XefjCbQtl
— Craig Foster (@Craig_Foster) July 24, 2019
Nikita White, a campaigner with Amnesty International who attended the meetings, told Al Jazeera that they had heard “really encouraging words in terms of what they’re willing to do for Sadam and other Australian Uighurs in similar situations.”
A ‘necessary first step’
Abdusalam’s lawyer Michael Bradley helped secure Australian citizenship for Lutfy in February after the government first claimed that the boy did not qualify because he was born in China.
It was a “necessary first step” towards getting the family back together,” Bradley said, describing Abdusalam as a “lovely guy”.
“He and his family are faultless in all this,” he said.
Abdusalam said that foreign ministry staff had assured him that the minister, Marise Payne, was “really worried” about the case and would “do anything to protect my family”.
In a statement last week, Payne conceded that because Wumaier was not an Australian citizen, Australia had no “entitlement to consular access” but the embassy was urging the government in Beijing to allow baby Lutfy and his mother to return home to Sydney.
China’s Embassy in Canberra did not respond to Al Jazeera’s questions regarding Abdusalam’s case and the broader issue of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, but the government in Beijing on Sunday defended its approach to the region.
In a document titled Historical Facts Concerning Xinjiang, it described the region as an “inseparable” part of China that had never been “East Turkistan” (a name for the territory used by some Uighurs), and said that Islam was “neither an indigenous nor the sole belief system” of the Uighur people living there.
Meanwhile, in an op-ed published this week, the state-run China Daily said that China’s critics were “divorced from the realities of the situation” arguing that separatists were trying to “brainwash the other Uighurs with extremism and terrorism.”
Australia was among 22 countries along with the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan at the UN Human Rights Council that recently called on China to end its detention of Muslims and uphold freedom of religion in Xinjiang.
Australia is home to a tight-knit community of about 3,000 Uighurs, who mainly live in the country’s major cities.
Abdusalam, like his wife, is from Urumqi, and first arrived in Australia a decade ago as a student and became a citizen in 2013. He now works as an Uber driver to support himself as he fights to bring his family home.
Threats and harassment
It was revealed in February that at least 17 Australian residents were believed to be held in Xinjiang, but there is little Australia can do to help them because most are not Australian citizens.
But even those in Australia say they are being targeted.
Nurgul Sawut, a social worker and Uighur activist who lives in Canberra, said that China is waging “psychological warfare” against Uighurs not only in Xinjiang but overseas.
“Every time I appear in the media, immediately I get threats via social media,” she told Al Jazeera. “They tell me how much I hate my family, that’s why I’m putting my family at risk.”
One person that contacted her pretended to be her sister, she said.
In other recent messages, another told her to be quiet and allow her family to enjoy the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha in August, which they referred to as a “hate festival”.
“We have raised awareness of the human rights violations outside of China, so they want us to be quiet,” said Adam Turan, general secretary of the East Turkistan Australian Association, who has lived in Australia for almost a decade.
“They are harassing our families there and harassing us over here,” Turan said.
China denies that overseas Uighurs are harassed or their loved ones targeted.
We think it can happen. It just takes political will.
Turan lost contact with his family two years ago.
“I was a very happy, energetic and active person up until two years ago,” he said, reflecting on how it had affected him. “Now I’ve changed – I’m quiet, if no one’s around I always want to cry, especially for my dad. This is happening to all of us.”
Since Abdusalam went public with his family’s situation, Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have arrested Nadila and questioned her repeatedly, he said.
“They keep telling her to make me silent, be quiet,” he said.
After this week’s flurry of meetings, Bradley told Al Jazeera that they were feeling “positive” that the family would be reunited in Australia.
China’s foreign ministry has indicated it will offer “assistance” to Lutfy and his mother.
“It is essentially going to be a political, diplomatic issue from here,” Bradley said. “We think it can happen. It just takes political will.”
And Abdusalam aims to keep the pressure up to make sure it does.
“As a father and a husband, I won’t stop until I see them in Sydney airport,” he said.