06/04/2010 04:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Freedom To Write: An Exiled Chinese Dissident, a Conference in Istanbul, and Some Milky Tea

It was fall in Mongolia, and I'd just arrived in Ulaanbaatar to work with writers for a year. My desire for the establishment of a Mongolian PEN Center was shared by a Mongolian writer living in New York City. He had emailed asking that I meet a writer exiled from the Chinese territory of Inner Mongolia living in Ulaanbaatar: Mr. Tumenulzii Bayunmend. Tumenulzii is a prominent essayist who writes about the Chinese government's actions toward ethnic Inner Mongolians and also a leading figure of an opposition party.

The man I met in front of the State Department Store didn't look like a refugee, which goes to show how many assumptions I had. Tumenulzii had an open and youthful face. We wove through crowds of youngsters hanging out at the State Department Store and out onto Peace Street. That night at Broadway Pizza, with only the most basic Mongolian words under my belt and about ten English words under his, Tumenulzii and I relied on pens, paper, an electronic dictionary, pizza, and universal gestures for conversation. He told me about himself, his move to China, the wife and daughter who live there, and the books he wrote about race and politics that brought Inner Mongolian fans from around the country just to meet him--and that precipitated a ban on his writing in China and police raids on his home after he left China for the country of (Outer) Mongolia in 2005.

Tumenulzii's notebook pages feature the lacy black script still used in Inner Mongolia; its vertical nature supposedly makes you nod yes to the world as you read instead of shaking your head no. In Outer Mongolia, where Cyrillic script was instituted in 1944, young people can't read the vertical script. The Inner Mongolian dialect is slightly different than the Outer Mongolian. In Outer Mongolia, anyone from any part of China is at risk, a sentiment expressed by the "f*cking Chinese go home" graffiti outside my apartment. Ulaanbaatar is a small city, and Tumenulzii, audibly from a Chinese region, does not feel safe.

On a -30 day in January 2008, Tumenulzii and I walked to the Mongolian office of the United Nations. I asked a UNHCR worker called Och what the holdup was with granting Tumenulzii's refugee status. Mongolia doesn't have an official UNHCR branch, just a liaison office, so decisions on refugee status have to come from Beijing. Mongolia has no legal provisions for asylum-seekers; as long as Tumenulzii remained one, he risked deportation at the hands of the government whose officials raided his home and strip-searched his wife.

Och told me if I secured a letter of support for Tumenulzii from Freedom to Write at PEN, a decision should come the next week -- something he would tell me for three months. Tumenulzii had me over for Inner Mongolian food (mutton stew and salted milky tea) at his modest but immaculately clean apartment on the worse side of town, near the black market. It was the February holiday of tsagaan sar and the first day of his family's week-long visit. He and his daughter Ona, a delicate university student with very good English, picked me up in a taxi (which in Ulaanbaatar can be any car driven by someone who could use extra cash). Tumenulzii took us up one floor too far, then couldn't figure out why his key didn't work, and Ona gave him grief for it in universally understandable tones. I took videos of them singing Inner Mongolian songs and smiled at his wife, a quiet geography teacher. I felt guilty for knowing what had been done to her, and tried not to imagine it as I looked at her tired face.

Spring: still snowy, but bright, and I met Tumenulzii. His black coat and sunglasses made him look like a spy in a movie. He smelled my cheeks, the customary Mongolian greeting, said, "United Nations, ok!" and put his thumb up. I called Och, who confirmed it. Tumenulzii is now an official refugee, eligible for resettlement, a long and difficult process. Canada or Europe, we hope. Somewhere Ona can go to a good university. He loves dogs, but can't have one here: somewhere he can have a dog. Sain okhinq, he said. Good girl. He kissed the top of my head.

This was two years ago. Tumen is still stuck in Mongolia, without his wife and daughter, with failing health and a drooping spirit. It's gotten markedly less safe in Mongolia for Inner Mongolian refugees; last year a Chinese doctor who'd been forced to flee China because he was suspected of practicing Tibetan medicine was seized outside the UN in Ulaanbaatar by both Mongolian and Chinese police.

The second-ever congregation of the Writers And Literary Translators International Congress (WALTIC), takes place this September in Istanbul (I attended the first one in Stockholm in 2008 in order to give a paper for my boss at the Mongolian Writers Union; the Best American Poetry Blog hosted a piece about it here). If I can raise enough funds for the airfare, I will present Tumen's story to the writers gathered there in the hopes of protecting and advocating for Tumen through international attention and assistance. Those of us free to express in our own countries have the choice, always, to work for those who aren't in theirs.

Simply put, even official UNHCR Refugee Status is not the end of an exile's journey. Resettlement through official channels can take many years, years of intense danger, desolate solitude, and anxious flux. I'll be presenting Tumen's story in the hopes of ending his, but I don't think we need Angeline Jolie to tell us how many other refugees there are out there. If you hug a loved one, write, paint, or hell, say anything today, please remember what a precious act it is, and how lucky we are.