By Callahan Pels
July 5th, 2009. 1,000 men and women gather in Urumqi, Xinjiang* to protest the unfair treatment of the Uyghur people. Weeks prior, a young Uyghur* woman was raped by a Han* factory worker. Upon seeing this, a Uyghyur man runs to her aid, engaging in a physical altercation with the Han man. The men fight, resulting in the death of the both the Uyghur man and woman. Chinese officials fail to acknowledge this incident. This is the last straw.
Uneasiness arises among the protesters as they wait for Chinese officials to address the centuries of unfair treatment. When the Chinese government fails to come forward, riots unleash. Cars are smashed and fire erupts. It is only when three Hans become casualties in the riots that the Chinese step in. Soldiers march down the streets, cutting the electricity as they do so. Complete darkness falls over the city, as gunfire cries out into the night. 100’s of Uyghurs are killed by the Chinese soldiers, 1,000s are injured, no one is spared. Soldiers knock on the doors of all who live in the area, and arrest any who step past the door’s threshold. The Uyghur people are portrayed in the news as terrorists, the truth of the night covered up once again in favor of the Hans.
Arzu* is 12 years old at the time, but to this day remembers the riots well. She watched the biased Chinese version of the event plastered on local TVs, listening intently as her people were called terrorists. She recalls the Government claiming that Rebiya Kadeer, a Uyghur who fled to the United States under amnesty, was to blame for the attack. The government then arrested several of Kadeers children, and had them publicly state that their mother was a monster. Arzu remembers thinking that the children were forced to say this, claiming, “you can see it in their eyes; when someone has been threatened”. It is soon after the July 5th event that the government escalates their goal of eradicating the Uyghur culture.
The native Uyghur language is prohibited from being spoken; no one is allowed to learn it anymore. Arzu is lucky enough to have learned her native language in 1st grade, years before it was banned. Books detailing the history of her culture are seized and hidden, the authors of the books are barely spared as they too are taken to jail. Even worse, the Quran is not only prohibited to be owned, but all copies that are found are confiscated and burnt. Head scarves are forbidden, Ramadan is outlawed, and many Imam across the land are arrested and killed. Arzu recollects on the time that a 70-year-old Imam* was arrested and killed solely for his faith.
In the two years that Arzu remains in China prior to receiving her green card to America, she is met with mass racism from her school teachers. She, along with other Uyghur students, would consistently do better on tests then the Han students, yet still would receive overall lower grades. Arzu recollects a time in which she had to go to military training in order to get into middle school, a practice that is very common in China. She remembers seeing Chinese soldiers lining the streets with long knives practically searching for a fight. Arzu is sure she would have been arrested had they not thought she was a Han due to the military uniform she was forced to wear.
She remembers how the school systems slowly stopped teaching about her culture and the history of East Turkistan. Thankfully, she was taught a lot about her cultures history from her family. Arzu states that China took over East Turkistan due to their abundance of natural resources. She recalls the history of how in 1943 the leader of East Turkistan died in a plane crash on the way to a meeting in Beijing with the Chinese government. It is believed by her people that their leader was actually killed by the Chinese government. After the death of their leader, China took over claiming that they would only occupy the country for a few years until the East Turkistan government was able to get back on their own feet. However, the Chinese government instead completely took over the land and renamed it Xinjiang, which roughly translates to New Land.
Arzu talks about how recently, her land has been completely disrespected by the Chinese government. A dessert in East Turkistan called the Taklamakan Desert that is now being used for atomic testing. The people closest to that area have begun to experience intense sicknesses and newborn babies have been reported to be born with mutations. Arzu believes that this is a way for the Chinese government to try to get rid of her people for good. She mentions how there have been lots of cases in which Uyghur couples have had babies in hospitals but never receive their newborn after the nurses take them away.
Through all this, Arzu was trying her hardest to focus all her attention on school, despite the fact that more and more of her family and friends went missing or were jailed. “It used to be that when someone went to jail we would ask, ‘What did they do?’, but now when we hear we just say how sorry we are”. Uyghur people were jailed for anything at this point, the most common reason being for having money or speaking out against the mistreatment.
Arzu’s family decided it was time to leave once they discovered the existence of concentration camps in their country. The cell rooms would be packed full with people, so much so that there is not enough room to sleep. The people who were held there would only get fed half a loaf of bread for the entire day. Even worse, they would be force fed pork, which the consumption of is strictly prohibited by the Quran.
Finally, in 2013 Arzu’s family packed up and left China. Her mom was able to obtain amnesty for her entire family, and they all received green cards within a year of applying for them. The first few years in America were hard. Arzu stated that her entire family had to start completely from scratch. She started highschool in the US as a sophomore with no prior knowledge of English. She picked up the language quickly and was able to graduate school on the same pace as other students. Arzu is very glad to be in America. She says she came here seeking equal working opportunites, as her people in China were not allowed to get high paying positions, even with a college degree. The only way for a Uyghur to get a job in China is to completely denounce the culture and religion. “What is the meaning of life if you work hard but get nothing? It hurts your pride to stay there. I was 16 (when I left) but I knew what I wanted so I left. The life here (in America) is hard, but if I stayed back home I would have a job somehow. I would have a life and a family. But I am scared that if I go back they will arrest me. (If I got a job) what if the Chinese ask me to do something that is unequal against my own people? I could not do that.”
Arzu ends her story by saying that she hopes that things will turn around in China and that people will be more aware of what life as a minority is like there. She even fears that the younger generation is not realizing how bad it is there. The Chinese media will show footage of the Uyghur people eating foods like pork, or celebrating Chinese New Year, both activities which are strictly denounced by the Uyghur religion. She fears the population is being brainwashed. “You think you aren’t having a bad life, but yes, you are”.
Overall, Arzu is just trying to protect her remaining family back in China. She knows that the best way to do this is to not return. “Someday if I go back, just holding the passport, I’m going to be done”. In a year Arzu will be 21, and will be applying for US citizenship. Once she is able to obtain that status, she will finally be free from the clutches that the Chinese government has on her for so long. It is then that she will finally be free to advocate for her people.
- Xinjiang: Called East Turkistan before China overtook it
- Uyghur: The ethnic group of the natives of East Turkistan
- Han: The ethnic group that makes up the Chinese population
- Arzu: Name changed for anonymity
- Imam: Mosque leaders
Stories: Stories of Immigration and Exile