Family Seeks Asylum, to Practice a Faith Freely

New York Times, Feb. 26, 2003

Every weekend, Fat Ping Cheung and De Rong Zhang take their son, Stanley Chun Chi Cheung, to Kissena Corridor Park in Flushing, Queens, to practice the exercises, similar to tai chi, that are a part of the spiritual movement known as Falun Gong.

They come here because they have faith in Falun Gong and its ability to improve and elevate the mind, body and spirit. They have faith, and in America their faith — everyone’s faith — is a protected right.

That’s why they came here, to this park, and to this country.

Mrs. Zhang was born in China, and Mr. Cheung was born in Hong Kong. They married in 1998, though Mrs. Zhang had never expected marriage in her life. In 1994, she said, the gas heater in her apartment in Shenzhen, China, exploded while she was showering. She said she suffered burns on her face and arms.

“I couldn’t work at all,” she said through a translator, Janet Xiong, a friend. “I couldn’t be exposed to the sun. The doctors recommended skin grafts and plastic surgery.”

But the operations were too costly, she said. Soon after, Mrs. Zhang was introduced to Falun Gong, with its slow-motion exercises, meditations and healing theories. She says that practicing the exercises and striving to be a better person made her burns clear up. Soon after, Mr. Cheung started Falun Gong as well.

As newlyweds, they seemed to have a brighter future within their grasp, although they had to live apart. Mrs. Zhang worked as a floral arranger at the Shenzhen Agricultural Research Institute. Mr. Cheung was a chef at his father’s restaurant on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. And in November 1998, Mrs. Zhang was pregnant.

And in 1999? That’s when the Chinese Communist government banned Falun Gong.

Mrs. Zhang said the police began approaching her often, asking her why she wanted to practice Falun Gong. Worried about the future their baby would face if born a Chinese citizen, Mrs. Zhang and Mr. Cheung left for St. Martin in the Caribbean, where Mr. Cheung worked at a relative’s restaurant. Their baby, Stanley, was born there in 1999.

In January 2000, Mrs. Zhang returned to China with Stanley. Mr. Cheung returned to his job in Hong Kong. The decision was tough, but Mr. Cheung could earn more money there. They saw each other as often as they could. But meanwhile, the harassment worsened in China.

On Nov. 11, 2000, Mrs. Zhang said, she was at home talking with a friend when the police arrived. “They ransacked and searched the apartment,” she said. “They took our pictures of my son and took us to the police station.”

The police questioned Mrs. Zhang about her involvement in Falun Gong. “They put my baby on a bench where he was crying and cold,” she said. “My baby cried himself to sleep.”

Mrs. Zhang said she had heard stories about Falun Gong practitioners and their children being beaten or killed. So she pretended to go to the bathroom, and then raced out of the station into a cold, rainy night.

She called all her relatives and her husband, imploring them to help her get Stanley back. The family quickly formed a plan. “My brother went to the police and guaranteed to bring me to them in exchange for my baby,” Mrs. Zhang said.

Her brother took the baby to Mr. Cheung, while Mrs. Zhang had already begun her journey out of China. She took a bus to Huanggang, a train to Shanghai, and a flight to Japan. There, she was reunited with her husband and child and, using tourist visas, they flew to New York.

They could not return to China, so they applied for political asylum. After their case was assigned to a judge, the Immigration and Naturalization Service referred the family for legal representation to the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, one of seven charities supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. There they met Diana Castanéda, a staff attorney for the charity’s immigrant and refugee services department.

“I interviewed them and felt they had a strong case,” Ms. Castanéda said. “And there was no other way for them to pay for a lawyer.”

The Catholic Charities used $3,000 of Neediest money to help the family, paying for such items as research, interpreters and translators.

On Nov. 11 of last year, “the judge found they had met their burden,” Ms. Castanéda said. “He found that they had suffered persecution.” Their status will be finalized in March, and next year they will be eligible to apply for green cards.

Mrs. Zhang, 39, and Mr. Cheung, 45, now sublet a room in an apartment in Flushing, Queens. Mr. Cheung does interior renovation, and Mrs. Zhang has given flower-arranging workshops at the public library.

But they still face uncertainties. For example, they say, the tenant from whom they are subletting has asked them to move by March.

Still, they are determined to make their own way, as they have before.

Mr. Cheung said: “We will solve our own financial problems. We don’t want to be a burden to this society. We want to merge into society and become part of the community.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday January 28, 2003.
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