Ajamu Johnson, a West Side native who had been incarcerated in Shanghai Qing Pu Prison in China since December 2014, was released from prison last week and returned to the United States on Dec. 8.
His mother, Dalila, brother, Jahi and two sisters, Chloe and Tyra, greeted him at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport with hugs and tears of joy.
"I was surprised. I didn't know if he was going to make it," Tyra said. "Having him here in one piece is an early Christmas present. It's perfect."
Johnson, 39, had traveled to China to study and teach English, but was sent to prison on Dec. 10, 2014 after he got into a physical altercation with another American identified as Andrez Ratajczak.
While the details of the altercation are not fully clear, Ajamu's family members insist that he fought in self-defense. But, after the incident, Ratajczak was allowed to leave the country while Ajamu was sent to jail.
"My lawyer told me there was a 100 percent possibility I wouldn't go to jail and that I would just be deported," Ajamu said. "There are lots of questions that need to be answered. To this day I haven't received any feedback on how my case was handled."
Ajamu said he encountered emotional trauma, financial distress and defamation of character while behind bars.
"You're sitting with 12 other men in a 10 x 6 size room. They want to put pressure on you to break. It's a travesty," he said. "It's a huge setback for me and my career. I take it very seriously."
Prison officials attempted to coerce prisoners into making statements they didn't agree with, said Ajamu.
"They're playing a vicious game and playing with people's lives."
Both Ajamu's dad and aunt died while he was locked up.
"The loss of my father when I was there — you can never really get rid of that scar," he said. "It added flame to the fire."
Last June, the Johnson family protested Ajamu's imprisonment with state Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th) at the Chinese Consulate located in downtown Chicago. Ford hand-delivered a stack of nearly 29,000 petition signatures to Consulate officials for Ajamu's release.
"The next step is to speak with the people who helped me [like] Congressman Danny K Davis, Rep. La Shawn Ford," Ajamu said. "I'm thankful to be back in the city of broad shoulders."
Dalila said it's a big relief to have her son back home and that she's thankful for the support she received from the family and community.
"I didn't raise my sons to go to jail," Dalila said. "He didn't commit any crimes."
After reuniting with their newly freed relative at the airport, the Johnson family took a few family pictures and then headed home.
"We've been together through thick and thin. I didn't expect anything less of them." Ajamu said. "I love them so much because I know my situation weighed heavy on their hearts."
Ajamu said his story isn't an isolated incident and that people in China are getting life sentences for minor incidents. He said the bigger issue is for America to have a better account for citizens abroad.
"It's important for us to not forget that the American people are our greatest asset. That should be our utmost priority traveling forward," Ajamu said.
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