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701: Black Box

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Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

So one of the things that's happening right now around the world is that you have all these couples-- happy ones, struggling couples, couples in that kind of things seem OK, but I don't know haze. Tens of millions of couples confined for weeks now, the relationships being remolded by this lockdown.

Esther Perel

It's an accelerator. It's a relationship accelerator. So it rearranges the priority and throws the superfluous overboard in a very clarifying way for many of us.

Ira Glass

Wondering what's happening with couples, I reached out to Esther Perel, who's a couples therapist. If you've heard of her, she's probably best known for this idea from her book, Mating in Captivity, that it takes a toll on couples and kills passion when there's not enough distance between the partners. And they turn to each other for everything. For friendship, and a sense of identity, and comfort, and everything a whole village used to provide a person. And she's very aware that under lockdown, people are literally turning to their partners for everything.

These days, she's seeing a full schedule of couples, more than she usually does. Interestingly, she says this is an unusually good moment for therapy. And in lockdown, lots of clients who are opening up and figuring out things in ways they don't normally, like some of the men in the couples--

Esther Perel

It's like for the first time, they're actually doing therapy. It's exciting, basically because they stopped. They slowed down their home. And they're like this blossoming of opening up and--

Ira Glass

Wow.

Esther Perel

Three dudes, you know, three men-- it's just exci-- like I don't want to get off the phone because it's very moving.

Ira Glass

For most of the couples that you're seeing, what's your sense? Has the lockdown been good for them or bad for them?

Esther Perel

Hm. It's just such an interesting thing to see. Really both, really both. I can't say one or the other.

Ira Glass

The couples struggling the most are pretty much exactly the ones you'd expect, people who even before all this were quick to pick at their partners, and criticize them, and argue over who's sacrificing the most for whom. But also in this moment when our lives have been so profoundly disrupted, another group doing badly--

Esther Perel

People who-- they've lost someone, or they have someone who's sick, or they are anxious. They are worried. And basically their partner is unable to have an emphatic response. You know, what are you worried about? There's nothing. And people tell you, my partner is the last person I'm turning to for anything I'm feeling right now. It's like I have nowhere to go with this, to just be able to be upset, or scared, or this constant sense of loss just of the world they've known, their own identity, their work, all of that.

Ira Glass

The extreme circumstances are also driving people to re-prioritize. Esther has seen couples split up and others move in together. And one of her most fascinating role reversals-- she's counseling one couple where one of the partners was always seen as the insecure one. She'd struggled through a traumatic childhood. It was agreed between the two of them that she was the troubled one who leaned on her stronger, more together partner. But now with the deadly virus everywhere, she's found that her difficult childhood gave her all kinds of coping and managing skills.

Esther Perel

She's basically, I have known chaos. You put me in this crisis. I know what to do. I knew what to do before anybody around me.

I was in that supermarket. I even knew to get the stuff for the parents of my girlfriend who is not even here because I knew that they would need this. And I just felt like now the world is clear to me. I know what it needs from me.

And in this particular relationship, it's two women. And it was a very interesting thing because it had-- I don't think that side of her had ever been known. It had always been described as you're the one with the issues because you come from this very traumatic background.

Ira Glass

So she became the functional one in the relationship.

Esther Perel

It was like a whole different way of being, but it was also a revelation to her self. This turned everything around.

Ira Glass

Suddenly, she wasn't seeking her partner's approval all the time. She didn't need it, which, of course, is healthy and great, except for the partner who is used to being the strong one. It's one thing to wish that the person you're with is more assertive and less needy. What do you do when you get that wish? It made her uncomfortable. And the way this played out did not surprise Esther.

Esther Perel

Oh, when I'm not comfortable with someone who is emancipating right next to me, I basically try to make them doubt themselves again. Because if they doubt themselves, if they're not sure, then they come to me.

Ira Glass

So that's what she was doing?

Esther Perel

Yes, in all kinds of very subtle ways, of course. This is not flagrant.

Ira Glass

So she would say things to encourage her formerly dependent partner to second-guess herself, to doubt herself, things like--

Esther Perel

It's so interesting that you want to do that. I thought you didn't really-- that that was not what you wanted to do. Or you once mentioned to me that you don't want to bring your mom, you don't want to call your father.

Ira Glass

Little doubts.

Esther Perel

It's a bit of a mind twist, just gentle mind twists. You don't mean to. It looks like it's a very rational conversation.

Ira Glass

With other couples, Esther Perel says being on lockdown is forcing them to confront things that they'd been avoiding, but have never actually stopped to figure out. There's a couple like this on her podcast. She does a show called Where Should We Begin?, where she records therapy sessions with real couples who volunteer to do this anonymously on a podcast.

Right now all the sessions are couples on lockdown. In episode two of the season, the couple was living apart before COVID-19. They had been together, living in Italy, but she got a job offer in Germany, caused a huge rift. She moved to Germany with her teenage daughter. He didn't. Then this year, when it really became a hotspot for the virus, he finally moved in with them. And finally, he and she had to deal with each other.

Esther Perel

They were on the verge of divorcing the moment this is over. This is an interesting situation because COVID-19 basically brought them together under one roof. They have been apart for a year and a half, and each one feels the other one abandoned them.

So COVID-19 resolved the standoff between them because neither of them had to make the decision, because the virus decided. And now they're under the same roof. And neither of them had to give in. But once they're together, they are in a constant-- it's like one person talks, the other one listens until they find a thing they can disagree with. And that's where they enter. And now they're going to start arguing.

Ira Glass

And it's interesting. There's a point where they keep having the same fight over and over. And you keep saying to them, stop having this fight. And there's a moment in the session where he actually is being kind to her and sort of inviting. And it's so interesting what happens.

Woman

Like you said, I am very busy. And today, I wanted to cook for you instead of doing something else. So I did that without even telling you. And these are the things that you don't appreciate.

Man

No, I appreciate, but would have been better if I would have cooked and then we were eating all together. So you did a great thing today to cook the lunch. But you didn't have lunch with us basically because you were between two calls. You had just five minutes to eat.

And I prefer to eat anything with you besides you cooking to let us eat, you know what I mean? I don't know. Let's plan what makes us happy maybe 'cause would have been better if we would have shared those 15 minutes of the lunch.

Woman

I also can't make it right.

Man

No, no. But there is nothing wrong.

Esther Perel

Did you hear this as a criticism?

Woman

Yes.

Man

But it's not. It's not. I'm just saying I would love to have lunch with you, and I would prefer to cook instead of you. If you have to spend those 15 minutes cooking for us, it's better that you make one call in those 15 minutes while I'm cooking and then you dedicate the next 15 minutes just to eat together. I'm not criticizing anything.

Woman

But I'm scared to ask you to cook again because I see all the things that you're doing right.

Man

What the fuck? I'm just cooking.

Esther Perel

One second, one second, one second. This moment was important. If you go to a class, you'd miss this, because you want to know if he cares. And he just told you. I would rather eat with you, whatever. He just gave it to you on a platter.

But you only heard the piece about it would have been better if you hadn't cooked. You didn't hear that what he meant with that was because I would have wanted that time with you. It's like you hear that which you want to hear, even if it's what you fear hearing and that you're not hearing what he's actually telling you. I'm not so sure that love is gone, but I think that the lovers have become invisible to the love that is.

Man

That's-- wow. But she just said, oh my god, that was the wow effect.

Ira Glass

She says this thing to the couple that-- I don't know-- maybe anybody who's ever been in a couple would find useful. She says to them, notice that behind every criticism there's a wish, a wish to be closer. Esther says she sees other couples in the same situation as this one. They're stuck in the same fight, and everything leads back to that fight, everything the other person says.

And they're too far gone to fix it. But what this couple was able to do, she says, was put aside the fight for a moment and talk about the feelings they were having for each other underneath all that. By the end of the therapy session, they're speaking in a sincere and heartfelt way that they hadn't in a long time.

Woman

So I called you when this crisis started, and you came to take care of us. And I appreciate that. And I don't want to lose this.

Esther Perel

This COVID-19 for this couple will save the couple that was literally otherwise on its way out. They were going to do another one year of fighting like this. And then one of them would meet somebody else, and that would be the end of that story. 17 years-- it's not like they've just met yesterday.

Ira Glass

Other couples don't get to this point. Episode three of her podcast this season has another couple who cannot stop themselves from fighting the same fight over and over. They decided to divorce two weeks before lockdown. And since then, it's gotten so much worse.

Woman

What's hurting me, living with someone who has so much contempt for me and feels that I am trying to control you by asking you to isolate with your family, which is what the governor is asking us to do. And I'm sorry that that doesn't work with your social plans, but this is a time that people are suffering.

Man

I'm not arguing that. I can't argue with you anymore.

Woman

No, but you are.

Man

I'm saying I'm not happy about it.

Woman

But you are. You were arguing--

Man

I don't just feel like I have a choice.

Woman

You were arguing as of yesterday.

Ira Glass

It's interesting. You lecture them in that episode a few times with a tone I feel like we don't usually hear from you.

Esther Perel

Yes. I'm basically saying, you have a task to accomplish. You are in lockdown together. And this is your mission right now. That's your project.

What you feel about each other is rather irrelevant. You are two parents. You chose to be here in this house together. What are you going to do, piss on each other the whole time just to remind the other that you resent having to be here? Or are you just simply going to try to be as civil as you can be and make this tolerable for everyone?

Ira Glass

For so many couples, the stress of lockdown makes things worse. There are already reports from China, as it comes out of lockdown, that divorce may be on the rise there. So who are the couples who are doing better?

Esther Perel

Who does better is the people who think, what can I learn here? What is this telling me about what actually matters in my life or what I really want to do and becoming more aware of things? Because A, we have never slowed down like this. Never on a global level have we slowed down like this. It's a long time that we have only been accelerating, accelerating, accelerating. And for the first time-- and I don't think we have begun even to understand what this is going to do to you to have had to really experience what that kind of a slowdown will do.

Ira Glass

Who we'll all be when this is done, who knows, seriously? Trying to guess the ultimate effect of this national shutdown on couples, on our kids' education, on the economy, on ourselves, it's like the virus has thrown the future into this black box. We can make our guesses, or we can just accept we'll know when we know. And for those of us who like more certainty in our lives, well, tough luck.

Today on our program, we have people trying in various situations to live with a lack of information, not happy about that fact at all, but doing their best. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: A Phone Flickers in the Dark

Ira Glass

Act One, A Phone Flickers in the Dark. There's one part of the world where there's a kind of information vacuum. At least for those of us who aren't there, it's a kind of black box. It's Xinjiang, China.

If you picture China, it's in the northwest corner, far from China's big cities, the size of Mexico, nestled up against Kazakhstan, and a few other Stans. And ethnically it's been more like them than 90% of China. For instance, it's home to the Uyghurs, who speak their own language that's close to Turkish, not Mandarin Chinese. Most Uyghurs are Muslim. And for a long time, the Uyghurs faced discrimination and arbitrary detention in China.

If you follow the news, you probably know that this escalated beginning in 2014 when the government started accusing hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs of supporting terrorism and wanting to separate from China, and sent them to so-called re-education centers. They're better described as internment camps. Former detainees report being beaten. Women have testified that they were forcibly sterilized.

The State Department has estimated that up to two million people were held in these camps. But information about what's really going on in Xinjiang is hard to come by. And for Uyghurs outside of Xinjiang who want to check in on their families back home, well, some families are effectively blocked from all communication. Others, the government monitors phone calls, and you don't want to say anything that will lead to officials banging on your family's door.

So Uyghurs in the diaspora have turned to TikTok. Yes, older listeners, you think of TikTok as the app where the kids are making dance videos and jokes that you do not understand. But the app started in China. The Chinese version of TikTok is called Douyin. It is insanely popular, over 400 million users a day.

And because it's so visual, the government is not so great at censoring it. As a result, it's a place where uncensored content gets out of Xinjiang. There are videos posted by Uyghurs, but also by government officials who've been sent there to manage Uyghurs. Here is a TikTok video that seems to have been posted by an official who's been assigned to live with a Uyghur family in their house as a kind of minder. It seems like maybe he posted this to show everything's fine. We're getting along. Everything's great.

Boy

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Ira Glass

In the video, the minder is eating breakfast with the two kids from the family in the garden. He smiles at the camera, turns it to the little boy eating next to him. And then in Uyghur, the boy says to his mom--

Boy

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Ira Glass

--"When my dad comes home, this guy will leave."

Boy

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Ira Glass

"Mom, is he coming on Monday?" The official doesn't seem to understand a word of that. Now here is a video posted presumably by somebody who's Uyghur. It's a woman with long, dark hair sitting in her car while the song "Faded" by Alan Walker plays in the background.

[MUSIC - ALAN WALKER, "FADED"]

There's something off about this. It is not a normal TikTok video of somebody dancing. She's beating her chest with her fist to the beat. And then you realize there are dozens of these same kind of video, using the same song, everybody beating their chest. It's like a virtual protest.

Still, like I say, there are lots of Uyghurs trying to figure out what's going on in Xinjiang and what's happening to their own families there. Durrie Bouscaren is a reporter living in Turkey, where a lot of Uyghurs have settled, many of them in the last five years. She's been talking with one man for months who's been obsessed with these TikTok videos, with anything else he can find that'll give him a look inside Xinjiang's black box because what he values the most in this world, his wife, and son, and the rest of his family, are stuck inside. Here's Durrie.

Durrie Bouscaren

Abdurahman Tohti fled China seven years ago after getting arrested and tortured for learning Arabic. He wanted to read the Quran. Today, he still doesn't have much feeling in his feet.

But let me tell you how he met his wife, because it's a sweet story. When Abdurahman got to Istanbul, he wanted to settle down and start a family of his own. So he turned to his dad back in Xinjiang, the person he trusts most in the world, and asked him to help him find someone back home for him to marry.

His dad went around, talked to other parents. And he found Peride, a biology student with brown eyes and a kind face. Abdurahman and Peride talked on WeChat. That's the main social media platform in China. They couldn't say much because they knew the government monitored calls to foreign numbers.

The conversation was stilted, but they got a sense for each other. And they decided to get married. So she packed her bags and boarded a plane to Turkey. Abdurahman was so excited.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

So the plane arrived at 2 o'clock in the night. So I went to the airport to pick her up. I bought a big rose flower, and I put a Quran in the middle. And I put a ring on the top of the Quran for picking her up from airport.

Durrie Bouscaren

He brought a photo of her to make sure he could figure out who she was. He was in the terminal with a group of friends, waiting. People were streaming out of the customs area, and he sees her.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

I go to her, and I ask, is this you on the picture? She asked, who is the girl in the picture for you? So I said, it's my wife. So she said, are you crazy? You don't recognize your wife? Then she left. It wasn't her.

Durrie Bouscaren

It's not Peride. And Abdurahman's starting to worry, like maybe she's not coming. Then he sees someone else who looks like her, goes up to her, shows the picture. She's like, no, that's not me. But as he's turning to leave, she calls him back. It was her.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

She took her phone out and show me my picture and asks me, are you this guy in the phone, in the picture? And I say yes. And that's why we met first time.

Durrie Bouscaren

She was messing with him.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

I put a ring on her hand. And the girl has a flower. And the Turks around us asking, what's happening? Are you getting married? Where are you from?

Suddenly, it became a kind of party. People are giving us gifts, all kinds of chocolate candies, and saying congratulations. And it was a really happy moment for us.

Durrie Bouscaren

A police officer working at the airport says, hey, I'm Uyghur too. He gives them a police escort back home, lights flashing. It's like a movie.

Not too long after, Abdurahman and Peride had a son. They named him Abduleziz, after his grandfather. And Abduleziz becomes his dad's mini me. Everything Abdurahman did, Abduleziz would follow, from the way he stood to his table manners.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

He likes the car. Even when I'm driving my car, he wants to sit in front of me and drive with me.

Durrie Bouscaren

This was in a parking lot. Abdurahman was teaching Peride how to drive, and 18-month-old Abduleziz would sit on his dad's lap and grab the stick shift. He'd throw a fuss if he couldn't.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

He was really cute. He used to try to copy everything I do.

Durrie Bouscaren

But Abdurahman's relationship with Peride's family was rocky right from the start. Abdurahman is religious, but her family is secular and pretty wealthy. But the heart of the problem was that Peride's parents felt like she was wasting her education in Turkey. She had a degree, but she wasn't using it. She wanted to stay home with their son.

When Abduleziz was born, Peride's parents started asking her to come back to Xinjiang for a long visit, maybe even to leave Abduleziz with them for a while. In Uyghur families, it's really common for grandparents to take care of their grandkids for their first five years of life while the parents work. The pressure from back home got really intense, but Abdurahman and Peride were hesitant to leave Turkey.

For starters, Abdurahman couldn't go with her to Xinjiang because he was sure he'd be arrested if he returned to China. And by this point, it was 2015. They'd been hearing whispers about added surveillance, about Uyghurs being detained in Xinjiang. They don't know exactly what's happening, but they know it's not good.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

I asked my wife, what do you say? If you want to with them, we can try it, but I don't feel good about it. And I'm afraid you will not be able to come back again because of the situation down there. She said, no, are you crazy? I really don't want to travel.

Durrie Bouscaren

Peride's parents kept insisting that it was safe, at least for them. They were loyal to the party, and they had high level government contacts. They're not religious. If Abduleziz was with them, they said, it would be OK. They were pushing, but Abdurahman and Peride kept saying no.

A few months later, Abdurahman was walking by a pretzel shop in his neighborhood when the police stopped him and asked for his residency papers. His permit had lapsed. He'd applied for a new one, but it hadn't arrived yet. So they arrested him, took him to a detention center.

This happens to a fair number of Uyghurs in Turkey. They'll be detained for a paperwork issue, and they'll get stuck for a while. In Abdurahman's case, he was locked up for three months, allowed just one phone call home every week. Peride, meanwhile, was home alone with their toddler and pregnant, close to her due date.

When Abdurahman finally got out, his whole world had changed. His wife had given birth to their second child, a girl. And his son, Abduleziz, was gone. He was in China. Peride's mother had come for a visit and arranged for the trip back.

Abdurahman felt tricked. He didn't even get to say goodbye. It's like his in-laws waited until he couldn't interfere and then sent his kid away. He says he never would have let Abduleziz go to China.

Durrie Bouscaren

Did you-- when you had that first conversation, did you and your wife fight about it? Were you upset? Were you angry? What was your physical reaction?

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

I was sad, of course, but I didn't argue or fight with her because she was also on the pressure. On one side she got me and another side her family pressuring her. So I also want to make it easy for her.

Durrie Bouscaren

Peride said she wanted to go back with the baby just for a short trip, make her parents happy. Then she'd come back with Abduleziz. Abdurahman wasn't crazy about the idea, but he agreed, drove them to the airport.

Interpreter

It was hard feeling, but I feel I couldn't do anything else.

Durrie Bouscaren

And so they flew away to go to a place where only fragments of information ever make it out. The plan was that Peride would contact Abdurahman on WeChat once they'd arrived and felt like it was safe, but he didn't hear from them. He called her parents again and again. They never picked up. He started to panic, but this isn't entirely abnormal because of how difficult it is for Uyghurs to communicate with their families in Xinjiang. He was hoping that that was all it was.

After two months of this, he says, a distant relative who was visiting Istanbul on business contacted him and said, let's have lunch. They met. He had news. It wasn't good.

Police arrested Peride as soon as she and the baby arrived in China. She was interrogated and beaten, the cousin said. She was in prison, serving a 10-year sentence. He thought it was because she lived in Turkey. Human rights observers say they've seen several cases where Uyghurs in Xinjiang have been punished for communicating with people in Turkey or other predominantly Muslim countries. It's not illegal, per se, but it can get you in trouble with the government.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

It's like you burn inside, something that's eating you from inside.

Durrie Bouscaren

It's eating you from the inside?

Interpreter

Yeah, because you have a lot of pain, but you cannot do anything.

Durrie Bouscaren

Their children are with their grandparents, his in-laws, so at least they're safe. But he can't get his wife out of prison. He can't even call home or try to get more information without endangering his family. Because he's living in Turkey, anyone in Xinjiang who gets a call from him could immediately get flagged by the government. They could be interrogated or even sent to a re-education camp.

And his family knows this. By this point, most of them have deleted him from their contacts. So he waits. There's nothing he can do. He starts putting on weight. He sleeps late. He's stuck.

For everything he's gone through, Abdurahman's still pretty young. He's 30. I've known him for about six months now, and he does things all the time that remind me that he's a dad who never got to be a dad. He always brings food when we meet and shares his snacks, like steamed buns with lamb dipped in a spicy vinegar sauce.

Once after an interview, we ran into his friend with her kid at a Uyghur-run cafe. I'll never forget the look on his face while he tossed the toddler up and down in front of the deli cases, this pure, uncomplicated joy. But when I ask him how he feels about all this, he's told me men don't have feelings, which obviously isn't true.

Back in December of 2018, when Abdurahman was living in Istanbul, hearing nothing from his family, things in Xinjiang were getting worse. More and more Uyghurs were sent to re-education centers and later required to do low wage factory work. Human rights observers say this campaign imprisoned about 10% of Uyghur adults in Xinjiang.

But Abdurahman had no idea what was happening to his family. That's when TikTok came into his life. A friend showed it to him. He was like, you've got to see this.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

He said, I just found a relative, a man I know from my hometown. I ask, how do you find people? How does it work? He tells me, you can write the name of your town.

Durrie Bouscaren

Abdurahman can't write in Mandarin, so his friend types out the name of his hometown for him. It's called Axu. It's an agricultural center in the west, hugging the mountains that form the border between China, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.

Suddenly, hundreds of users are popping up on his screen. He goes through video after video. He sees all of these places that he recognizes-- the woods, and the rivers, and the families hanging out in front of their houses. And he can tell things have definitely changed. The cotton fields look the same. The houses are familiar. But to Abdurahman, Axu looks like a city under occupation.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

A lot of video is Chinese occupier put on that. And the interviews, it looks like a happy moment to them, but what the video has shown is, for example, a Chinese guy in a Uyghur house. There are only women in the house and a elder lady my mom's age.

The Chinese man first tried to dance with her, like almost forcing her to dance, and tried to hug her. And the Chinese guys look happy, and they thought they are doing something good, but in our tradition is attack. Like I can see the lady. She cannot do anything against it, but she don't want to dance with the guy.

Durrie Bouscaren

In another video, something else seems off. It's a group of people clearing ice off of an irrigation ditch with picks and shovels. It's winter. You can tell by the trees and the coats they're wearing.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Durrie Bouscaren

Abdurahman knows this ditch. It's just a few minutes from his family's house. And to him, it's clear they're being forced to work. We never clear ice from the ditch until springtime, he tells me. There's no need. It just freezes over again.

This watching does not seem to be good for Abdurahman, but he can't stop. TikTok is like this tiny flashlight into the big black box that Xinjiang has become. For a week, he stayed in his apartment just searching. What he was really hoping for was to see someone he recognized, any traces of his kids, his wife's parents, his parents. He hadn't been able to speak to them for several years at this point.

He watched at the kitchen table, watched on the couch. At night, he'd lie awake, scrolling. On January 4, 2019, he was in bed, and like usual, scrolling through TikTok. It's around 2:00 AM, and Abdurahman sees this video. It's a little boy with big cheeks, expressive eyes. He's in a school, answering questions in Mandarin Chinese from a teacher off camera. Behind him, kids are milling about in winter coats.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Interpreter

They have a leather jacket, winter jacket.

[SPEAKING CHINESE]

Durrie Bouscaren

The teacher asks the kid a bunch of questions. What's the name of the fatherland? The People's Republic of China. What's on the fatherland's flag? Five stars on a red flag. Where's your water bottle? Water bottle is here. Where do we put the food we can't finish? In the trash.

Abdurahman doesn't speak Mandarin, but there is one word that stands out to him, Abduleziz. What's your name, the teacher asks? I'm called Abduleziz, he says. How old are you? I'm four. That's how old Abdurahman's son should be now.

The video is just 15 seconds long, one of a hundred that he's watched that day, and he can't be sure it's his son, Abduleziz. But Abdurahman simultaneously gets this rush of love believing that it's his son and this intense fear that it's really him. Because his kids are supposed to be living with their grandparents while he figures out a way to get them home. And it looks like they aren't.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

As soon as I see it, I can feel it's a camp for children.

Durrie Bouscaren

It looks like Abduleziz is in a boarding school, one of the ones set up by the Chinese government to take care of about 500,000 kids, many of whose parents have been detained in re-education camps. Except for short visits home, the kids are generally kept away from their family, taught Mandarin, not Uyghur.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

Yeah, I feel that my son is becoming more Chinese every day. After I understood the video, I became worried about his future, how the regime will teach him and make him an enemy of Uyghurs in the future, especially make him an enemy of people like me.

Durrie Bouscaren

That seems to be exactly the point of these schools. They place these kids in a setting where they're removed from their families, their language, their religion, their Uyghurness. As one internal government document claims, the goal of this crackdown is to, quote, "break their lineage, break their roots, break their connections, and break their origins." The government is their family now.

From this moment, when Abdurahman saw his son in this video, all he wanted was to get him back. He was consumed by it. I should say there are lots of parents around the world in the same situation. In the past year or so, I've personally spoken to nine of them in three different countries. Only one was able to get her son out of China, thanks to an influential family member and a Turkish passport. Still, Abdurahman was convinced that he, a guy who doesn't speak Mandarin, doesn't have political connections, can't even call home, he was going to get his son back.

Ira Glass

Reporter Durrie Bouscaren. Coming up, Abdurahman uses everything he has to get his family back. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Black Box, stories of people who don't have the information they need and want, trying to figure out what's going on and what they should do next. We now continue with Act One of our show.

Right before the break, maybe you heard Abdurahman Tohti thought that he spotted his four-year-old son on a TikTok video and decided to set out on a mission to retrieve him and the rest of his family. Reporter Durrie Bouscaren picks up with Abdurahman's story.

Durrie Bouscaren

The first thing he did was he went to the press, made it public. This was risky because his family was still in China. His interviews were published all over the world in Turkish, English, Portuguese. He was on the BBC and in The New York Times.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

The media attention was so intense in the beginning. That makes me have more hope and trust. I think, OK, something maybe will happen. But then I find out it will not happen.

Durrie Bouscaren

With each of these interviews, it felt like he was screaming into the void, trying to get China and the world to look at him. And the response, silence. He was no closer to getting his family back than he was when they left.

He tried more official routes. He went to the Chinese embassy, nothing, asked the Turkish government for help, wrote to the United Nations. He once told me about this plan to move to Canada as a refugee because he thought the government there would have more leverage. Mind you, that would take years to come to fruition. But he truly believes that one day his family will be together again.

He has these pictures on his phone. Because there's no portrait of his family, he's made some using passport photos of him and Peride, a baby picture he has of his daughter, and a screenshot of that video of Abduleziz. They're Photoshopped onto backgrounds, the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, cherry blossoms in Japan.

Durrie Bouscaren

So why do you do that? Can you tell me about that?

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Durrie Bouscaren

It's because we're a family, he tells me. Last summer, Abdurahman had some luck. He was scrolling through WeChat, and he found a childhood friend. He says they hatched a plan to buy a plane ticket for her to go back to their hometown, get eyes on the ground. But, of course, even when she made it all the way there and was sending him videos of their old neighborhood, she still couldn't speak directly to what she was actually seeing, the significance of it.

Everything's fine, she told him. Everything's new and better, as she panned the camera around the empty streets. Abdurahman was kicked off WeChat, so we don't have the actual videos. And we weren't able to reach his friend without risking her safety. But he says the way she spoke was super casual to avoid drawing attention.

Interpreter

The buildings are not here anymore. Don't get surprised because they have built new restaurants here. If you come here, I will buy food for you-- like basically joking. And then I answer her, why should I be surprised? OK, maybe one day we have a chance to meet there.

Durrie Bouscaren

She drove to the street his parents lived on. There were a lot of checkpoints. Eventually she got there and found an empty lot. His family's house in the city had been demolished. They have another home, a farm. They could have moved there.

But this is the point when Abdurahman started to worry that his parents had been taken too. He hadn't been able to speak to them in four years. Every time he gets more information, it's like this. The more he learns, the worse things seem.

Abdurahman still watches TikTok. It's like a nervous habit when he's bored, when he's tired. In interviews, when it takes too long for an interpreter to translate a question, he'll sort of lean back and pull his phone out from under the table.

Eventually in January of this year, the app shook loose another piece of information. An old acquaintance wrote to him through TikTok's direct messaging function. The messages start off nonchalantly enough. Hi, how are you, brother? Abdurahman asked him if he's seen his parents lately. How are they doing?

The friend didn't have any information about his son or his wife, but he could tell Abdurahman that his family in Axu is gone. They're not staying at their farm like he had hoped. His elderly father, his mother who has cancer, he gives them name after name. They're gone. They're gone too.

And Abdurahman can't even be sure what this means. They could have been forced off their land but living elsewhere. They could be detained in a re-education center. They could be in prison. From thousands of miles away, it's almost impossible to find out.

As he's telling me this, it's the day after he got these messages. And Abdurahman is getting really worked up. He's talking super, super fast, like a dam has burst and all of these emotions from the past three years are spilling over.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

Not only my parents. My parents, brothers, sisters, all of them are gone.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

They have taken-- they have taken everything from me-- property, land, family, son, wife. Everything I got in my life they have taken from me. I'm ready to do anything I can to take revenge.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

So officials in Chinese embassy, I will smash their cars, smash their buildings until they arrest me or they put my parents free. What can I else do? I've got enough with just speaking empty words.

Durrie Bouscaren

Throw me in jail, keep me outside, it's no different, he says. They've killed my soul. I have nothing to live for anymore.

We later called the local police station in his hometown and confirmed that no one is at his family's address, even though 13 people used to live there. They knew that Abdurahman was looking for his family and put a Uyghur speaker on the line to talk to him. Maybe they've left. Maybe they did something wrong, the speaker said, but she refused to say if they were accused of a crime.

Two days after he gets to the news about his family, he found something new to fixate on, the mayor of Istanbul. He thought that if he could convince this guy to help him, he might be able to put in a word to Turkish diplomats who help people detained overseas. The mayor was scheduled to speak at an afternoon event, a dinner in honor of the different cultures of the Turkic world, like the Turks, the Uzbeks, and the Uyghurs.

I met up with him to go there. He's brought bags of Uyghur breads and fried noodles for the event because an activist told him it might help him get a chance to meet with the mayor face to face. The chances of this resulting in anything are slim. Honestly, it's a Hail Mary.

But as down as Abdurahman was the day before, he's up now, buzzing with excitement in the car on the way over.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Durrie Bouscaren

I'm going there as a human being and asking them to do their duty as a human being, he tells me. The event is happening outside a museum under a big tent. Abdurahman pulls his bags of food out of the car, and we wait for the mayor.

A few minutes turns into a few hours. He falls back into his phone, flipping through TikTok videos like usual. He looks tired. Finally, just as the program is about to begin, the mayor sweeps in with bodyguards in tow. He's introduced, ushered onto the stage, and he speaks for about 15 minutes.

Mayor

[NON-ENGLISH SPEECH]

Durrie Bouscaren

And then the mayor moves to leave. Abdurahman realizes that this is his chance. He needs to go now. But a group of admirers descends on the mayor, shaking his hand, giving him gifts. Abdurahman waits on the edge, hanging back, until he sees an opening and makes his move. I stand back with our interpreter to watch.

Durrie Bouscaren

I see him going up.

Interpreter

Yeah, and there are bodyguards.

Durrie Bouscaren

He's like the one green sweater in a sea of moving black suits. He's trying. He's so close. He's so close. He just wants to shake his hand.

He disappears into the crowd. And just as the mayor is leaving the tent, he's able to wiggle through to get close enough to greet him. They shake hands. It's just enough time to say hello, not to explain a story or to ask for help to find his son. And the mayor moves on. It's the same as every other time he's reached out to the Turkish government for help. Nothing changes.

We sent requests for comment to China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Public Security, and Ministry of Education, asking for information about Abdurahman's family. No response. We tried the Office of the Vice President of the Xinjiang Autonomous Region and the local propaganda department. In that case, someone did pick up, told us their fax machine was broken and that no other fax machines were available.

So we summarized the questions over the phone. The person on the other end called it sheer nonsense and told us to go online and read the news. The Chinese embassy in Washington, DC basically said the same thing. I asked for information on Abdurahman's family and on these cases in general.

They responded with a list of YouTube links, videos posted by China's state media service, defending the re-education camp program and claiming that people who say their families have been imprisoned are lying. I would suggest you check some of the rumors being exposed, they wrote. Thanks for reaching out to the embassy.

We also can't reach Peride. We confirmed as many details as we could about Peride and Abdurahman's life together with a friend of theirs. It took more than a year before Abdurahman finally saw a small glimmer of success. Weirdly, it was the pandemic that did it.

This winter, news of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan started to filter out of China. The videos Abdurahman started to see on TikTok were of empty streets, people stuck at home without much to eat. Some would set their videos to music pulled from zombie movies. Abdurahman began to worry about Xinjiang. Social distancing is happening there, but the Uyghurs in prison don't have that option.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

Somebody gets infected amongst the prisoners or somebody in camp, then all of them will be infected. So I'm worried.

Durrie Bouscaren

And it's not just the people in prison. People detained in re-education centers can also get infected or the kids who have been separated from their parents and placed in government schools. So this winter, a group of parents in Istanbul started planning a trip to the Chinese embassy, to show up in person and demand access to their children. Before anything was finalized, the parents started to get phone calls from the consulate. Abdurahman got one too.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

It was last Friday. I came out from the Friday prayer.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

I was driving and transporting something to [NON-ENGLISH]. And I got a phone call while I'm driving. It was an Uyghur. He said, I have good news for you.

Durrie Bouscaren

The caller was a translator for the Chinese consulate. He had information about Abdurahman's children, he said. Your kids are with their uncle, the caller told him, not in a boarding school. They're safe.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

OK, which uncle is that? And the guy said, I don't know. So I said, OK, let's meet. Where are you?

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

And he said, no, we don't have to meet. This is the only news I have.

Durrie Bouscaren

He got this call in March. He still has no idea if it was true or not. This drop of information, an unprovable bit of news that he desperately wants to hear, it could be a lie designed to placate, keep him quiet. He knows this.

But Abdurahman insists that even if it's not true, it's still good news. What this phone call means to him is that now someone in the government has finally acknowledged his jumping, and screaming, and waving his hands. Someone somewhere might actually be responding.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

This is good news, but until I see them directly, I will fight for their case.

Durrie Bouscaren

Until you see a video or until you see them here in Turkey?

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

Until I get them to Turkey.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

It's about-- I meet my son and I start to take care of them as a father. I will not stop. For me, it's good news. It gives me hope.

Durrie Bouscaren

Abdurahman has renewed hope that they'll be together again. Because this time, after four years of trying to find his family, the black box has spoken back. But even this tiny victory is short lived.

A month later, Abdurahman calls me from the road. He's driving, balancing the phone on the steering wheel.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Durrie Bouscaren

He says a contact from TikTok who's been sending him information about Axu wrote to him to tell him that local government officials went on the village loudspeaker to make a public announcement saying anyone with information about the Tohti family, Abdurahman's family, is forbidden to share it.

Abdurahman Tohti

[SPEAKING UYGHUR]

Interpreter

Look, we are now living in 21st century. And if people lose their cats or their dogs, they will have a right to look for them. In my case, of course, I have a right to get information about my family, as a father, as a son, but they are even forbidding me to get any information about my family members.

Durrie Bouscaren

His fear is that they are going to disappear. There would be no charges, no prison sentence, no anticipated date of their release, no communication with the outside world. And he'll never know what became of them.

And what frustrates him is that right now people he knows are starting to hear news of what's happening to their families, that they've moved out of re-education centers and into low wage factory work or formal prison sentences. They're getting answers, but Abdurahman still knows nothing. For years, he's been fighting for information. He may never get it.

Ira Glass

Durrie Bouscaren in Istanbul.

Act Two: State of Emergency

Ira Glass

Act Two, State of Emergency. So our show today is about people trying to find their way in situations where they don't have much information, or anyway the information they need. And, of course, that's the situation the whole world is in right now with the spread of COVID-19 as we try to make sense of how to treat it, how to deal with it as a society.

Couple weeks ago, my co-worker Miki Meek talked to one emergency medical worker in Brooklyn, Anthony Almojera. He's vice president of local 3621 of the EMS Officers Union in New York City. EMS, emergency medical services-- it's part of the fire department. Even a few weeks ago, they were totally overwhelmed. Anthony was out responding to an endless stream of 911 calls.

And Miki checked back in with him recently to see how he's doing. He said that even though the number of infections in the city has finally started to slow, his crew is still in uncharted territory. And a lot of the calls they're getting are for cardiac arrest. Apparently the virus, in addition to attacking the lungs, can also put stress on the heart and sometimes directly infect the heart.

Some days, the number of cardiac arrest calls coming into New York City's 911 system has been huge, over 300. It's about four times higher than before the pandemic. Most of those people are dying at home. Here's Miki talking to Anthony and then to one of his colleagues.

Miki Meek

Anthony, how are you doing?

Anthony Almojera

I'm OK, I guess. It's still crazy. This past Sunday, I did 13 cardiac arrests in a 16-hour shift.

Miki Meek

Jeez, 13.

Anthony Almojera

13.

Miki Meek

13 cardiac arrests-- what does that day look like for you?

Anthony Almojera

So I wake up. I put the uniform on. I'm sitting there, trying to mentally get myself geared up for another day of this.

I get a Red Bull. If you're going to be in the middle of hell, you might as well be alert. And I'm going to work, and my brain is sitting there-- it's weird because my brain is sitting there going, OK, I got to get ready because I know it's coming. Then it starts coming. 6:30 in the morning, it started coming.

I go. Elderly gentleman-- fever, cough, symptoms. We try and work him up. We were unsuccessful. I tell the family, I'm sorry. There's nothing more we can do.

And then I go back into the truck. I hit the button. I get called for the other cardiac arrests. And I go, another family, the patient's family saying that he had a cough for five days and he was weak with chills. We try and work him up, we're unsuccessful. We pronounce.

I hit the button. I get hit again for another cardiac arrest. I go. This particular patient we weren't able to work up because he had rigor mortis, so he had been dead for a little while.

But the family states, oh, he had fever, cough symptoms. So we were like, OK. I'm sorry for your loss. There's another one that happened today. I'm sorry for your loss.

And then the next call-- and this is going to sound weird to the everyday person, but the next call was a suicide. There's no fever, cough. So it's like, oh, a regular call, so to speak, as opposed to having to get all crazy with the gowns, and the gloves, and the masks. It's such a morbid scene, but there's three of us that are like, well, this is one patient we don't have to worry about getting this virus from. And it's like, to feel relief in the middle of this tragic death-- I mean, this is somebody who felt hopeless enough to go and commit suicide. We still have the empathy for him and whatnot, but hey, we're going to get through this one without getting infected by anything.

And then I hit the button. The button shows that I'm available. And I'm on my way to another cardiac arrest.

Cassandra

I've never had a panic or an anxiety attack, and I feel like one is going to come on really soon.

Miki Meek

This is another paramedic in New York City I'm calling Cassandra. She didn't want me to use her real name because she didn't get permission from the fire department to talk to me. I've been checking in with her regularly over the past few weeks, and she's processing her days differently than Anthony.

Because she's not a lieutenant, she spends her entire 12-hour day in an ambulance. I talked to her recently after she'd finished one of her shifts. She'd gotten home at 3:00 AM and took a bubble bath to try and calm down, but it didn't work.

Cassandra

How much more worse than this can it get? We're at worst to me. This is my worst. I did 37 cardiac arrests last week. I told somebody I'm sorry for your loss 37 times last week.

Miki Meek

37 times I'm sorry for your loss.

Cassandra

Yeah. And-- yeah. I don't think I've ever done that in a year, like 37 cardiac arrests. That's insane to me. I don't even know how to explain it. Like, my soul hurts. I'm not used to seeing all this death all at once.

I'm a person. I'm very strong headed. So it's just like, if I see death it's like, OK, this happened. I process it quick. And I'm like, I deliver my message to the family.

And it's like, damn, that was messed up. And I move on. It's not like it sticks with me for a while. And right now that's not the case. I'm holding each and every one of them in because I don't have time to just put it away.

Miki Meek

I was wondering, are there any particular calls that stick with you right now?

Cassandra

There was actually one cardiac arrest that I had last week that wasn't COVID related. But the guy was 107 years old, and he was fighting. He really wanted to live. And I was shocked at that.

And that made me a little bit happy because I thought we were going to get him back. We didn't. We pronounced him at the end, but he was fighting. He really wanted to live.

Miki Meek

What do you fear most right now? Like, what's the fear that's on your mind this morning?

Cassandra

I'm a ticking bomb. If I don't start dealing with stuff, I'm going to blow up on my partner or on somebody. And God forbid that's on a patient because I don't want to be mean to somebody that just lost a loved one, you know what I mean? I don't know how I'm going to react to not dealing with all this death constantly.

Miki Meek

Do you have a plan?

Cassandra

I don't. I don't have time to make a plan.

Miki Meek

Anthony, when I talked to you last, it was very hard having to deliver news to people and not being able to comfort them, having to keep a distance. And so I talked to you about a little over two weeks ago. And I'm wondering, has that gotten easier for you? Have you readjusted?

Anthony Almojera

No, it's not easier. And to be honest with you, I don't want it to be easy. If it gets easy to me, that means maybe I'm suffering from a little emotional fatigue, I'm burning out.

If I still feel sadness, that's a good thing. I mean, it sucks, but it's a good thing. It means I'm still feeling. In my head, I try to remember that the sun does come out the next day. And I know that sounds corny, but it's awfully cloudy at the moment.

Miki Meek

Yeah.

Anthony Almojera

But the thing that's hard about this is, as a medic, you are eternally hopeful in the face of fighting death every day. Because even if you didn't get them this time, you know that the next time you will. But this virus out here, this pandemic, we're not getting them next time.

Miki Meek

Right now about 15% of the emergency medical service workers for the New York Fire Department are out on sick leave. At least three are in the ICU on ventilators. And one longtime worker, a watch commander in downtown Brooklyn named Greg Hodge, died earlier this week from COVID. Anthony took this news hard. He says Greg is the one who trained him when he first came on the job.

Ira Glass

Miki Meek is one of the producers of our show. Just a program note after that story-- if you or somebody you know might need help, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK. That's 1-800-273-8255.

By the way, the EMS unions in New York City have been in a dispute with city government. Starting pay for an EMT in New York is roughly $35,000. Paramedics start at $48,000. And when the pandemic started, they asked for hazard pay since they were putting their lives on the line in a way that was more than usual and also for better benefits for their families if they should die on the job. They have gotten nowhere with this. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he will look into it, but not until the crisis is over.

[MUSIC - SECOND STORY, "WHEN THIS IS DONE"]

Our program was produced today by Robyn Semien. People who put our show together today includes Bim Adewunmi, Emanuele Berry, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Aviva DeKornfeld, Nora Gill, Damian Grave, Miki Meek, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Ben Phelan, Nadia Reiman, Christopher Swetala, and Matt Tierney, the managing editors Diane Wu and Sara Abdurrahman, our executive editor, David Kestenbaum. Interpreters who helped us with our story in Act One, Samar Jan and Nasir Siddique.

Esther Perel's podcast, Where Shall We Begin? that we talked about at the top of the show is now available on Spotify and any other platform where you get your podcasts. Special thanks today to Darren Viler, Max Baucus, David Brophy, Sue Benet Romere, Usan Uyghur, and Kayla Gabler. Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. While on lockdown these last few weeks, he's been working on his relationship. His wife has an old Al Green record that they like to snuggle to.

Esther Perel

It's an accelerator. It's a relationship accelerator.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.