Activist and Bitter Winter correspondent Laila Adilzhan managed to land in Amsterdam with the help of American friends. It was quite an adventure.
by Laila Adilzhan
My name is Laila Adilzhan. I am a human rights activist from Kazakhstan who advocates for the rights of ethnic Kazakhs and others who are detained and taken to the dreaded transformation through education camps in Xinjiang just because of their religious and ethnic identity. I write about this issue for Bitter Winter.
I am the wife of well-known Kazakh human rights defender Serikzhan Bilash, who was the first activist who collected and publicized detailed accounts of China’s genocide against ethnic Kazakhs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang.
With some friends, my husband and I collected first-hand accounts from those who arrived in Kazakhstan after having escaped from Xinjiang and had been in the re-education camps, and others who had lost their loved ones there. We documented that what is happening in Xinjiang is indeed a genocide, and published several personal accounts of ethnic Kazakhs who had experienced it in Bitter Winter.
Because of these, and other, articles, China lost any chance to persuasively deny that re-education camps do not exist in Xinjiang, or they are just “vocational schools.” No matter how much China protests, now everybody knows the camps exist and inmates are tortured there.
It is because of my work in helping people who had been detained and tortured in China and persuading them to speak out that I am now a refugee in the Netherlands.
On March 9, 2019, my husband was arrested by Kazakhstan National Security (KNB) on various trumped-up charges. He was fully aware that this was the result of pressures from China. But what China and Kazakhstan had not expected was the international mobilization in favor of Serikzhan. From the Helsinki Committee to Bitter Winter, many protested and made his case well-known.
After keeping Serikzhan for six months under house arrest, the authorities were forced to release him. However, they clearly signaled that he could not live in peace in Kazakhstan. He was under continuous administrative harassment, and other critics of China met with an even worse fate.
So, we decided to leave our country, and continue our work and activity in Turkey. However, we realized that even there we were not safe. In addition to his criticism of China, my husband is a well-known critic of the Kazakh authorities, and had exposed little known facts about former president Nazarbayev. All Kazakhs know that Kazakh dissidents may be kidnapped and even killed abroad, and some countries are less safe than others.
Serikzhan had a visa allowing him to go to the United States, and he moved there first. I continued to feel in danger in Turkey, and decided it was safer for me to go to the European Union with my children. We contacted Bob Fu, a friend of Serikzhan and an activist who exposes religious persecution in China through his organization ChinaAid. Bob was happy to help us. He bought us a plane ticket and asked his friends Michael (Mike) Horowitz and Devra Marcus (Mike’s wife) to come to Istanbul and travel with us.
Mike is the director of the Hudson Institute’s Project for International Religious Liberty and Project for Civil Justice Reform. He served as general counsel for the Office of Management and Budget under the Reagan administration, and has been a professor of law at University of Mississippi and Georgetown University. His wife Devra is an internist in McLean, Virginia, with a medical degree from Stanford University. They are well-known as human rights activists. Despite being both in their eighties, they traveled to Turkey and arrived in Istanbul on January 8, 2022.
This was during the days of the national protests in Kazakhstan, and I felt even more unsafe in Turkey. It was clear to me I could not travel alone with three children and needed help. On January 9, I met Michael and Devra in Istanbul and we took a taxi to Istanbul Airport. We had been advised to buy a return ticket to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, through Amsterdam.
We had a hotel reservation in Rio, vaccination passports, and negative PCR COVID-19 tests. However, at the checkpoint for the boarding, I was stopped by security. They took my boarding pass and passport, and asked me to wait. I was mightily worried, and could not understand what the problem was. In the end, the security returned my documents to me, and I was allowed to board.
After we landed in Amsterdam, Mike and Devra disembarked first and waited for me near the police who were checking all passports and asked me where I was going. I declared myself a refugee who wanted to stay in Amsterdam and get asylum in the Netherlands. I want to emphasize that the Dutch police was extremely polite. They asked me how I felt, took me and my children to their office, and offered us drinks. I told them our story, and an officer told me he was familiar with the situation in Xinjiang and even had read something about my husband.
Mike and Devra were with us. Another officer came and told them the police had to check their situation since they might be guilty of human trafficking. They were separated from us and their personal belongings, including documents and money, were taken away from them. Mike managed to give me $150 as I had very little money.
Next morning, I was taken to the refugee office to be interrogated about Mike’s and Devra’s case. I was asked whether I gave them money for their help. I said it was the opposite, they gave me money and supported me and my children. I observed that Mike and Devra are 83 and 81 respectively, they are well-off, graduated from prestigious universities, and are well-known in the United States. They had even invited me and my family to come and live in their home. The police wrote down everything, and next day Mike and Devra were released.
I was taken to a refugee camp, where I and my children have good housing and feel safe. I am waiting for further interviews about my asylum request, and hope to be soon reunited with all my family in the Netherlands.
I cannot even find the words to express my thanks to all those who helped us. I want to thank from the bottom of my heart Mike and Devra who undertook a long trip in difficult conditions and even went to jail to help us. I want to thank Bob Fu, who has always supported my family.
I am immensely grateful to Massimo Introvigne and all the Bitter Winter team, who have published my articles for three years and made my story and, more importantly, the story of those who escaped to Kazakhstan from Xinjiang known internationally. With the help of all these friends, I plan to continue my work and give voice to those in Kazakhstan and Xinjiang who need our support.