Twenty days after University of Illinois graduate student Yingying Zhang disappeared from the Urbana-Champaign campus, her family called on the community Thursday to hold on to hope for her safe return.
"She's always a brave girl and she never easily gives up on anything," Zhang's boyfriend, Xiaolin Hou, told a crowd of well-wishers gathered at the school Thursday night.
"She never gives up as long as there's a glimmer of hope ... so we cannot give up either," he said.
Hou and members of Zhang's family led a procession of hundreds of well-wishers through the streets of the Urbana-Champaign campus Thursday night. They waved flags with her name on them and carried her picture as they chanted "let's find Yingying."
The family flew from China to the United States earlier this month to search for the 26-year-old visiting scholar. And they say they're not going home without her.
Zhang's father issued a plea earlier Thursday to those responsible for his daughter's disappearance: Let her go and I'll forgive you.
"The family hopes the kidnappers would not hurt her and know she is really well loved by family and friends," her father told CNN through a translator Thursday. "Let her go, let her come back as soon as possible."
Last seen June 9
Zhang had a yearlong position at the university's department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. She graduated from Beijing's prestigious Peking University in 2016 with a master's degree in environmental engineering.
Zhang is 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighs 110 pounds, the FBI said. She was last seen wearing a charcoal-colored baseball cap, a pink and white top, jeans and white tennis shoes. She carried a black backpack.
The last known sighting of Zhang was on the afternoon of June 9. Security camera footage shows her entering the passenger side of a black Saturn Astra hatchback that day.
University police said Zhang had just gotten off a public bus before the four-door hatchback approached her on the north end of the university campus. The FBI announced that investigators found the car on Tuesday, but provided no further details.
The FBI is treating the disappearance as a kidnapping, but campus police, in a recently released update, say they are calling it a missing persons case.
Support from around the world
Zhang is one of more than 300,000 Chinese students and scholars attending US universities. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is one of the most popular universities for Chinese students, with more than 5,600. They make up a sizable community both on campus and in the small town of 207,000.
Her disappearance has triggered widespread concern in China, with groups set up on messaging app WeChat to share information about the case.
A crowdfunding campaign set up to help Zhang's family with expenses as the search continues has raised more than three times its $30,000 goal, with many donors leaving messages of support in Chinese.
'Twenty days is a long time'
Her disappearance has struck a nerve on the Urbana-Champaign campus.
Supporters who joined Thursday's rally echoed her family's hopeful tone.
"I'm praying as I walk," said Champaign resident Donald Baker. "We're hoping we can bring her back home to her family and to this campus."
Another woman said she joined the rally to support Zhang's family. She has a daughter close to Zhang's age who travels internationally, and sometimes she doesn't hear from her for days, she said.
"It was important to me as Americans that we show love and care to this family," she said.
"I want to be optimistic that we will find her," she added. "Twenty days is a long time."