In 2020, Xinjiang police started texting Aksu through WeChat and WhatsApp. They pressured him to cooperate and threatened his family. Aksu never answered, so messages arrived from multiple phone numbers, with various country codes, not only for mainland China but also for Hong Kong and Turkey.
In September, Aksu got a call from an old friend, a high school friend he had shared a bunk bed with in a dorm for four years. The friend, now a policeman, was polite. He recalled old memories and thanked Aksu for the times he had helped him. But it was clear that the purpose of the call was not friendly. “He wanted me to give him information,” Aksu said.
As it was, Aksu was having a hard time keeping things together. Although DC represented a positive change, he still hurt his family and remained “tortured” by the death of his brother. The phone call was a drop in the bucket. “I felt betrayed,” Aksu says. “I cried. I was like, ‘How could this happen to me, how could anyone do this?’
Later that day he passed out. He woke up the next morning on the floor with a colleague knocking on his door. Aksu had missed a meeting and his colleagues were worried. His anxiety, Aksu discovered, was back in full force. So were the long nights awake. A few days later, he passed out again. “Then one day I had this stupid idea of suicide.”
“I was so worried,” Aksu says. “Like, ‘Oh my god, why should I be thinking about that?'”
He confided in a colleague, who confided in their boss, Louisa Greve. Greve, the global director of advocacy for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, took Aksu to a popular Uyghur restaurant in the Cleveland Park neighborhood. Over spicy noodles, she comforted him and suggested that he seek advice.
Aksu had been here before, of course. He was reluctant to try therapy again, but was persuaded. Greve introduced him to Charles Bates, a psychologist from Northern Virginia who had volunteered for the Uyghur Wellness Initiative.