One day in 2006, Iris Lu came home from high school in rural southern China to find her family's home ransacked and her mother gone.
Cuiping Deng, a primary school teacher, had been hauled away to a detention center, her second trip to prison for practicing a Chinese spiritual discipline called Falun Gong. Deng would be subjected to psychological and physical torture by a Communist regime determined to make her recant her beliefs, according to Lu.
Last summer, Deng was arrested a third time and is now serving a six year sentence.
On Thursday, Lu, an accountant for the University of South Florida who lives in Temple Terrace, will pile into a friend's car and travel from Tampa to Palm Beach, where they'll park on the side of the road near President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club, unfurl a 10-foot-long vinyl banner, and wait.
At some point, they hope, Chinese president Xi Jinping's motorcade will pass and the leader will catch a glimpse of Lu and the banner that bears her mother's photo and a message.
"I just want to present my story to him and let him know there are ordinary families suffering in China, in the land that his government controls," Lu said. "And I hope he can do something to help me."
Deng started practicing Falun Gong in 1997 to ease stress, calm her mind and fight insomnia. It worked, but the physical effects were only part of the benefit, her daughter said.
Falun Gong, also known as Falun Dafa, is a spiritual philosophy with roots in Buddhism and qigong, a relative of yoga. Deng read books espousing the faith's moral philosophy, centered on the tenets of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance.
"That improved a lot of other personal relationships with her friends and her family," said Lu, who began to practice Falun Gong as a stressed-out undergraduate studying financial management.
But as the Falun Gong grew in popularity, the Communist regime under then-President Jiang Zemin began to see the practice — unsanctioned by the government and counter to its militant atheism — as a threat to government authority.
The government launched a full-scale campaign to eradicate the group by turning the public against the practice and coerce its practitioners to abandon their faith. To force these conversions, the government arrested people, often without due process, subjecting them to forced labor and physical torture that sometime resulted in death, according to human rights groups such as Amnesty International.
Shortly after the persecution began, Deng was suspended from work and sent to an "education center" after authorities discovered her faith, her daughter said. To keep her job, Deng agreed to turn over her Falun Gong books and recant her beliefs.
She later had a change of heart, though. In fall of 2000, after her younger sister disappeared, Deng decided to demonstrate in Beijing's Tiananmen Square but was arrested at a train station. She soon learned her sister had been arrested in the square a month earlier and sent to a labor camp. Deng was held for a month and released on bail. Her sister spent a year in the camp and was released.
For the next several years, Deng practiced her faith in secret but continued to distribute materials about the regime's persecution. In April 2006, a stranger reported her, and police showed up at her home in Yuxi, in the rural district of Hongta.
Already a petite woman, Deng went on a hunger strike while awaiting trial and withered to 75 pounds, said Lu, who visited her once during that time. Deng stood trial in September 2006 and was sentenced to three years in prison.
During her confinement, was forced to sit in the same position on a small stool for hours at a time, damaging her legs and hips, Lu said. Guards ordered other inmates to stab her with small needles.
Still, she was spared harsher punishment inflicted on others, including her friend Shen Yueping, a doctor who was reportedly shocked by electric batons and drugged, Lu said. Yueping died in a hospital in July 2009, about eight months after Deng was released.
Government officials have denied that Falun Gong practitioners are killed in custody. They attribute deaths to suicide, illness, or other accidents.
Deng continued to practiced Falun Gong in secret. She'd lost friends, her health and her career. But she couldn't stay silent. Falun Gong, after all, stresses honesty.
"She couldn't lie to herself or to other people," Lu said. "We cannot just keep silent for our own safety and let this go. Our consciences don't allow us to do that. We have to speak out and seek justice. Otherwise the persecution will go on and bad things will continue to happen to good people."
Lu moved to America in 2012 and earned her master's degree in accounting from the University of Tampa. She started her job at USF in 2015 and made plans to bring her parents to the United States, where they could apply for asylum.
Meantime, she spoke weekly with them on Skype. Last July, she called and finally reached her father, Wenming, who said her mother had been arrested once again for distributing materials about the persecution of her faith.
She was tried in February on a charge of "using a cult organization to sabotage law enforcement." Her lawyer pointed to flaws in the charge — for one, that China has never criminalized Falun Gong as a cult and for another, prosecutors couldn't point to which law had been sabotaged.
But the courts, Lu said, are an arm of the regime and Deng was found guilty.
Her lawyer visited her recently and reported that her health is rapidly declining. A plum-sized tumor has sprouted on her leg and it's painful for her to walk and sit, the lawyer reported.
Lu sought help from U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross, a Lakeland Republican who represents eastern Hillsborough County. Ross penned a letter to President Xi in August expressing concerns about Deng's arrest. In October, Ross, Palm Harbor Republican Gus Bilirakis and two other members of Congress signed a letter requesting the release of Deng and seven other Falun Gong prisoners.
"We ask you to respect their rights of freedom of their chosen belief and allow them to reunite with their families as soon as possible," the letter said.
This week, Ross sent a third letter, this time noting Deng's reported ill health and requesting her "urgent release."
Ross said he has received no reply to any of the letters. He planned to reach out to the White House this week to ask that the White House add China's human rights violations as a topic of discussion between the two presidents and their staffs. Ross also will work through Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to stress that human rights must be part of any negotiations with the country.
"We in the Congress should assert ourselves in the name of human rights and say this is unacceptable," Ross said. "These oppressions should cease, especially in the name of Iris's mother."
Officials at the Chinese embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to messages from the Tampa Bay Times seeking comment.
Lu and her friends plan to leave Tampa by 3 a.m. with hopes of reaching Palm Beach by the time the sun rises.
They'll join an organized demonstration of other Falun Gong practitioners and supporters on Bingham Island, a spit of land in the middle of the Intracoastal Waterway traversed by Southern Boulevard, the road that leads to Mar-a-Lago.
The group will be there all day on Thursday and Friday with hopes the Xi motorcade will pass by. If and when it does, Lu will be clutching one end of the purple vinyl banner she designed and had professionally printed.
"Help Rescue My Mother Cuiping Deng," it reads. She will stay until dark to catch Xi's eye if she has to.
"He's human, too," Lu said. "He has a daughter. He has a wife. I just want to let him think about himself and his own family and give my a family a chance to be reunited."
Contact Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.