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Jin Bianling together with her family before her departure to the U.S. (photo by Jin Bianling)

“I thought I would never see you again,” Jin Bianling told her husband after she had finished crying.

Jin waited for this moment to come for years. Her husband, a human rights lawyer, finally was released from Chinese prison in February. While she speaks of the first video call with her husband after four years, tears are dwelling up again. Her right hand wipes them from her face.

Jin is still not sitting next to her husband, but more then 10,000 kilometers away, on the other side of the globe, in her flat in Los Angeles. She is one of the relatives of Chinese human rights lawyers who decided to leave their loved ones behind, for a better future abroad.

At least nine families of rights lawyer left China in the past years, according to the Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, a Hong Kong-based NGO. The reason is almost always the same: Harassment by the Chinese police and the desire for freedom.

Jin has been knowing her husband Jiang Tianyong for more than 20 years; she was not happy when he gave up his stable high school teaching job in 2004 to pursue a career as a lawyer. Without even having attended law school. “I was very angry,” she remembers, although she didn’t know about the cases yet which he was about to accept. Later, she realized her husband was representing Falun Gong practitioners, land rights petitioners or Tibetans. All groups branded as “sensitive” by the Chinese government.

After she moved to Beijing to follow her husband, the harassment by the Chinese police became more obvious to Jin. One day, her key didn’t fit in the lock of her apartment door. Someone put something in the lock to block it. Another day, her bicycle had a second lock. She assumes the police added it, to intimidate her.

During the seven years she had been living in Beijing, her family moved houses around six times, Jin says. When they lived in a flat for a while, the landlord suddenly raised the rent to a high level. Jin believes that Police pressured the landlords. When they tried to rent a new apartment, they were rejected regularly. “I felt so helpless,” she says.

In 2011, when the Arab Spring happened in the Middle East, the police came for her husband, who was then detained for two months. Jin was not imprisoned but followed by police 24/7. “The pressure on me was very heavy,” she remembers.

Even after her husband had returned home, she still thought someone was following her. Although there was no one. Paranoia haunted her. “I couldn’t continue living like this. If I had continued this kind of life, I would have gone mad.”

In summer 2013, Jin decided to leave China together with her daughter. For good.

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In San Francisco, another wife has to tell a similar story. Wang Yanfang also is a wife of a Chinese human rights lawyer. Her husband, Tang Jingling, worked on fake vaccine cases and advocated for democracy in China. Wang fled China in 2016, for a better, freer life in the U.S.

In 2011, after her husband also had been detained after the Arab Spring, Wang was placed under house arrest for five months. No phone allowed. Leaving her home impossible. “Going out to buy something or having a walk; these things are so precious,” she says now, remembering the time under house arrest. Police recorded wherever she went and what she did. “They have a special note book, recording every move, even when I leave my home to throw away rubbish.”

In the following years her husband was arrested again, the two were divided once more. In 2016, she was allowed to visit him in prison and told him: “I’m so exhausted, they are still monitoring me, I can’t stand this anymore.” A month later she tried to leave the country via Hong Kong. Successfully. “When flying to America, I had a feeling of freedom,” she remembers the day she took the plane into a freer life.

But in the U.S., she needed to find a job to make a living. Babysitting, cleaning bathrooms, working in restaurants, she tried everything. And Wang has been alone all the time, her husband still being imprisoned in China. “I miss him so much,” she says. “Every day I hope to have someone to talk to, but there is no such person.”

This Monday, her husband was finally released from prison. She was looking forward to this day all the time – to talk about everything that happened in the past two years, in the prison, but also in the U.S.

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Jin Bianling, the wife of recently released human rights lawyer Jiang, also had to fight a lot of challenges in her new home. She needed to find a job, take care of her pubescent daughter and advocate for her imprisoned husband. Too much for her.

“I was depressed,” she says. “When I was not happy, I went to the supermarket. I had no money to buy anything, but I could divert myself.” Later, a psychologist helped her to cope with her depression. After her husband left the prison, pressure is not so heavy anymore, Jin says.

Now, the two are chatting via video messenger every day, talking about their life apart and their dreams for the future. Jin is hoping to lie in her husband’s arms soon, to stand in front of him, to hug him.

“I want him so much to come to the U.S.,” she says. Jin hopes he can come within the next three years, so that they can enjoy a peaceful, unexciting life in retirement. Without politically “sensitive” cases but with a partner at their side. A dream that has not become true yet. “The U.S. means freedom,” Jin says, “but the U.S. also means loneliness.”