News & Politics

A Car Crash Left Her Three Nieces Stranded In China. Now Suki Chen Is Fighting To Bring Them Home To NY

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A jingle came from the salon owner’s phone. Suki Chen moved to answer it, but there was trouble with the connection. The circle of women inside the Natural Beauty Nail Spa, in Cornwall, New York, took their cue and began to put on their coats. They had started as Suki’s clients, but now they were also her friends — some used the word “sisters.” They hugged her, whispered strength into her ear, and stepped out into the brisk March air, all wishing there were more they could do.

The call came from Suki’s three nieces in China. Despite the time difference, Suki tried to Skype with them at least twice a day: once in the morning, before she opened the salon, as the girls were getting ready for bed, and again in the evening as she was closing up, before they left for school. She messaged the girls constantly to make sure they were safe, waking up two or three times a night to check her phone.

The dough-white cheeks of Ming Xuan, the youngest of Suki’s nieces, finally flashed on Suki’s screen. In a call earlier in the week, Ming Xuan had been unable to stop giggling. A piece of hard candy had turned into mush inside her mouth, and she displayed the work proudly between her teeth.

“You’re eating too much candy!” her aunt had scolded, but it warmed Suki to see her niece’s simple joy. “Brush your teeth before bed!”

Ming Xuan handed the phone to Shiman, the eldest of the three.

“Did you guys go outside and play?” Suki asked.

“No,” Shiman answered. “Not today.”

Suki frowned. “You should try harder to make them happy.”

Suki often found herself lecturing Shiman to do more for her younger sisters. “They need you,” Suki would say. After the calls, she tore herself up. She knew Shiman didn’t want to be seen crying — that she had taken to hiding in other rooms whenever she felt the tears come. It wasn’t fair, Suki fumed at herself. Shiman was too young. The burden was too big.

The burden is every day. Every morning the girls wake up, help each other fold their blankets, then link hands and walk to school. After class, the two younger girls wait for their big sister to pick them up again. Outside they slide past the eager faces of their classmates’ parents — mothers and fathers there waiting to receive everyone but them — then weave through bicycles, cars, and buses to their apartment. During the winter, a kindly neighbor saw that they had no coats to wear — one day, the girls weren’t even wearing socks — and lent them some of her own children’s. Most weeks a distant in-law drops by to deliver food, but the girls spend every night on their own.

They are four, seven, and eleven years old.

The patrons of Natural Beauty root for its 33-year-old proprietor; they say they love her spirit, grit, and gratitude. Suki opened the salon in 2008 and took her first vacation seven years later. She opens for business at 9 a.m. seven days a week, then stays past 8:30 to close. She files nails, threads brows, paints toes, waxes, cleans, chats, and smiles. Since moving to the U.S. in 2005, she’s felt blessed — blessed to work, blessed to run her own business, blessed to raise a family here. In 2012, she gave birth to her third child and also became a U.S. citizen. That night her husband, Runchen, brought home a cake to celebrate. They cut the cake and felt like they had everything they could ever want.

On the morning of June 12, 2016, Suki woke to a phone call from China. Her older brother’s best friend was in hysterics. There had been a car accident, he said. Suki’s brother had been taken to the hospital. Her sister-in-law, two months pregnant at the time, “had gone.”

“Gone where?” Suki remembers asking. “Gone to the hospital?”

Her brother’s friend could barely say it. Earlier in the day Suki’s brother and his wife had been riding in an auto-rickshaw, a motorized, three-wheeled taxi common in China, having loaned their car to a friend for an emergency. Suddenly a truck appeared — the impact was so great the rickshaw’s tangled passengers were later removed from a crumpled-steel bowtie, skid marks twenty meters long leading to the blood-smeared gravel. The collision killed Suki’s sister-in-law immediately. Her brother was taken to the hospital in critical condition.

Suki felt hit by a truck herself. “I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t,” she says. “I couldn’t do anything.”

Her parents had moved from China a few years earlier to live with her; she doesn’t remember how she made it to their bedroom. Her mother took the news quietly. Her father was quiet, too, then he sprang from the bed and bolted for the door. Outside, he clutched his chest. He and Suki held each other and began to cry.

Suki’s hands shook so much she had trouble filling out the airline reservations. “A heavy stone pushed down on my heart,” she recalls — she felt its weight all through the fifteen-hour flight to China. All her life she had looked up to gege, the older brother six years her senior. When their father’s store in Changle, in southeastern China, went out of business, her brother gave up a promotion in the provincial capital to come home, working as a bus driver so Suki could finish at the local college. “We had no money back then,” she says. “If he made a hundred dollars, he would give me eighty of it.”

Suki and her parents arrived in China two days after the accident. Her brother had been transferred to a larger hospital in the closest big city. The doctors had initially given him a 40 percent chance of surviving, but his condition had stabilized, though he had slipped into a coma.

The last time Suki had seen her brother was during Chinese New Year in 2012. Her dream was to bring his family to America, but three years after applying for F4 visas, designed for the immediate relatives of U.S. citizens, they had made little progress.

Just the week before, they’d been texting on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app, swapping photos of their children. Suki’s body shook just thinking about the girls. China’s enforcement of its former one-child policy was more relaxed in low-tier cities like Changle, where Suki’s brother was residing once again. He had originally hoped for a son, but when his wife gave birth to three daughters, he was delighted. With the girls’ parents gone, Suki thought, what would happen to them?

Suki called her husband in New York. “I need to take care of these girls,” she said. It’s what her brother would have done for her — Suki was sure of it. The couple were already raising three kids of their own — two in elementary school, one just out of diapers — but Runchen agreed. “Bring them here,” he said. “We’ll make it work.”

Suki’s father remained at the hospital to care for his son; her mother, whose own health was failing, settled in an hour away to look after the girls. Suki headed to the Ministry of Civil Affairs to begin the adoption process. But restrictions on foreign adoptions had tightened (in 2015, 2,354 Chinese adoptees made it to America, roughly a third of the number from a decade earlier), and Suki’s U.S. citizenship cast her an outsider. Even though Suki was an immediate family member, the ministry denied her request.

Suki returned to New York determined to work through the American immigration system. On July 25, her eldest niece’s eleventh birthday, Suki called and left a message: “Auntie’s in the U.S. right now, but she’s coming back soon with good news. We’ll celebrate when Auntie gets back, OK?”

That evening, Suki’s phone rang as she was driving home. Her mother had been crossing a street back in China; witnesses said it was a hit-and-run. She was killed at the scene.

Suki was back on a plane to China two days later. The stone in her heart had turned to granite. “My world was collapsing,” she says.

Before Suki left, Lou Cioffi III, the former athletic director of Cornwall city schools and a regular at the spa, accompanied her to U.S. Representative Sean Patrick Maloney’s office in Newburgh, where aides told them Suki’s nieces should instead apply for the B2 visitor visa, designed for tourists and relatives who intend to return home after a short period. The congressional aides offered another piece of advice: that Suki might try the U.S. Consulate General in Guangzhou, five hundred miles from where she was to land. She might, they said, find a sympathetic audience there.

Suki made three trips in three weeks to Guangzhou. On the first visit her nieces came with her, but the embassy official took one look at the girls’ papers and her face turned. She slid the passports back and, according to Suki, said, “Sorry, I can’t approve this.”

Suki, whose family hails from Fujian province, believes there was prejudice at work. She might be right. “Her province is very high-fraught,” says New York immigration lawyer Margaret W. Wong. “I would not have advised her to do it that way.”

Fujian, a mountainous region along China’s southeast coast, has a complicated history with the United States. During the 1980s and ’90s, entire Fujianese villages made their way to America, often facilitated by professional smugglers known as “snakeheads.” At one point, so many Fujianese landed in Manhattan that East Broadway took on the nickname “Fuzhou Street,” after Fujian’s capital city. Measures have tightened since, but it was not unusual for Fujianese emigrants to submit falsified documents claiming dubious origins. For Fujianese applicants today, Wong says, “it’s pretty common that the embassy would look at that and start to ask questions.”

After the accident, Suki’s younger brother, a restaurant worker in one of Cornwall’s neighboring towns, had flown to Fujian to help look after the girls. Expecting to return in a few weeks, he told his pregnant wife to stay in America. Now he called to tell her he had no choice but to stick around longer.

In the back of a taxi, the consulate disappearing behind them, Suki’s three nieces peered somberly out the window. Shiman spoke up: “Auntie, what will happen to us when you go back to America?” It was the first time any of them had asked her that question.

Suki tried to tell the girls not to worry, that they would find a way, but Shiman asked, “Are you bringing just one of us, or are you going to bring everyone?”

Suki turned to look at the girls. “I will take care of you,” she told them. “Auntie is your mom now.”

Back in New York, Cioffi returned to Maloney’s office to draw up a new plan. Only a week had passed since her mother’s death and Suki was in Guangzhou again, this time to apply for humanitarian parole, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services program that approves temporary visits for beneficiaries who can demonstrate “urgent humanitarian reasons” or “significant public benefit.”

The woman she met at the U.S. Citizen Services office listened carefully and told Suki she needed to prepare extensive documentation to prove her nieces’ case. “Bring everything over,” the woman said, “and we’ll see what we can do.” It was far from a guarantee, but her tone was kind. It was the first piece of good news Suki had heard in months.

Suki returned to Fujian and collected the girls’ birth certificates, her brother’s hospital records, two death certificates: everything she was told they would need. She translated everything into English then made one last trip to Guangzhou on August 19 to submit the girls’ parole package. Each application cost $360. Meanwhile, in New York, Maloney’s aides told Cioffi they would push Immigration to fast-track the girls’ applications, and to expect an update in two weeks. Suki thanked them profusely.

Then, back in Fujian with her nieces, she waited.

She waited through her mother’s funeral in August, her sister-in-law’s funeral in September. Suki’s father waited, too, at the foot of her brother’s hospital bed; he hadn’t left his son’s side since the accident. Every few hours he poured food into a blender and fed the mixture to his beloved laoda, his eldest son.

On September 22, Suki returned to the U.S., where for months her husband had been in Cornwall, juggling their family and the salon on his own. They waited every day to hear from Immigration. One afternoon in October, they learned that Suki was two months pregnant. The news caught them by surprise. “Our first thought was, ‘That’s a lot of kids to have in the future,’ ” Suki says. “But the more we thought about it, the more it felt like a gift. After losing so much family, to be granted one more — we thought, ‘This is a gift from God.’ ”

On December 4, Suki’s younger brother returned to America. He felt as though he was abandoning the girls, but his wife might now go into labor at any moment. He had already been absent for most of her pregnancy — gone when she needed him most — and was not about to miss the birth of their first child. Before leaving China, he moved his nieces into an apartment across town, close enough that they could walk to school. Then he had to go.

The girls spent their first night on their own. Four days later, their requests for humanitarian parole were denied.

The circle of women stared at the magazines on the waiting table, then up at Suki, then back at the table. “I just don’t know how you manage a business, and manage a home, while all of this is going on,” said Sue Cibirka, resting a hand on Suki’s arm. A longtime customer, Cibirka had heard the news last fall when she brought her nine-year-old daughter in for a manicure. “It was all too much to digest,” she would reflect.

Wendy Gade walked in through the door; the couch was full, so she pulled up a chair. Gade’s family moved to Cornwall five years ago. She began coming to the salon soon after. “They’re always hard at work — Suki and her husband. They never take a break,” she said. “There was a time between the two accidents when I came in and heard that Suki was in China. My first thought was, ‘Good for her! It’s wonderful that she’s finally gone to see family in China.’ ” Gade looked across the circle. “It wasn’t until she came back and I asked, ‘How was your trip?’ that I found out why she had gone.”

After a short piece about Suki ran in the town’s newspaper, the Cornwall Local, in January, readers touched by the story called the offices of Representative Maloney and Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. The majority of Orange County residents voted for Donald Trump in November, but whatever their views on immigration, it offended them to think that America had no room for Suki’s nieces.

“I don’t know of any mother, or father, or sister, or Democrat, or Republican who wouldn’t look at this and say, you know what, this is something that’s a no-brainer,” Cioffi says. “You’re talking about three young children who are uncared for. It’s not a made-up story. It’s real.”

One Maloney aide suggested that Suki file for legal guardianship in China, which would give her greater custody of the girls and allow her to reapply for parole. Then Schumer’s office called with the opposite advice: If Suki became the children’s legal guardian in China, U.S. officials might think the girls were planning to stay in America permanently, and humanitarian parole requires applicants to indicate when they might reasonably leave.

“If you interpret how our immigration officers will look at that, it may work against the kids if they have a legal guardian within the U.S.,” says immigration attorney David Meyers. (Cioffi, who was Meyers’s middle school teacher in Albany, reached out to his former student about Suki’s case in December, decades after they’d last spoken.)

President Trump’s January executive orders made things even more complicated. The orders — targeting refugees from Muslim-majority countries and expanding deportations — were blocked by judges and would not have applied directly to Suki’s case, but Meyers says the volatile climate has sent immigration attorneys all over the country scrambling: “There’s a lot of chaos and uncertainty right now.”

With Meyers as her attorney, Suki moved ahead with her applications for Chinese guardianship and renewed humanitarian parole. Meyers also suggested transferring Suki’s older brother to an American hospital, which, if approved, would grant his daughters entry into the country. But Suki worried she wouldn’t be able to afford his medical treatment.

A U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services spokeswoman declined to comment on specific cases but said the department is separate from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency directly affected by Trump’s executive orders. In an email, the spokeswoman noted that parole was only granted “sparingly — in extraordinary circumstances — for urgent humanitarian reasons, such as medical or family emergencies.”

Suki’s friends in the community are bewildered by this: If everything that’s befallen her family isn’t an emergency, what is?

“The whole thing is messed up,” says Sue Ryan, shaking her head. A personal trainer and nutrition coach, Ryan was one of the salon’s first customers. “You see [Suki] jumping through all these hoops to do it the right way,” she says. “Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease. I’m hoping there’s enough squeakiness from our community to get this going.”

In the meantime, Suki feels as if she’s been running in circles. All three of her nieces have changed since the accident — talking less, smiling less — but none more so than Rong Hui, the precocious middle child. On the girls’ first visit to the hospital, Rong Hui had refused to leave her father’s side. She crouched next to his ear and whispered, “Dad, wake up. Come on, Dad. It’s Rong Hui. Let’s go home.”

Lately Rong Hui has been retreating into herself. On a recent call, she looked straight into the phone and ignored Suki’s attempts to get her to talk. Finally she admitted that her ears had been hurting and she couldn’t hear very well. She told her aunt that the pain subsided after a few days, but on the other side of the world, Suki felt helpless. “I don’t know what will happen to them,” their aunt admitted. Recently she’d read about a rise in child trafficking in the area where the girls live. “I am scared for them every day.”

In their last report, the doctors in China said Suki’s brother’s condition was improving. He’d begun twitching in response to noises; his face registered discomfort when the MDs squeezed his arm. In better moments Suki allows herself to believe that one day the girls will get their father back. In some ways, she says, fighting for them has kept her from despair and compelled her to look forward.

She caught one last glimpse of their faces before the call dropped. Suki’s youngest daughter — her sidekick at the salon, not quite old enough for preschool — pulled at her hair. The empty booths around them waited for the day to start.

Suki messaged her nieces: “Auntie loves you very much. Auntie won’t give up.” She tapped the keys in silence. “I will bring you here beside me. I will give you guys a real family, and help you to grow up healthy and happy.” She added, “Eat more fruit.”

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