Safe but no longer home, Uyghur immigrants advocate for peace


Evgeni Zotov, Flickr CC

Image of Uyghur gates in Shanshan, Xinjaing. Xinjaing It is home to a number of ethnic groups, including the Uyghur, Han, Kazakhs, Tibetans, Hui, Tajiks, Kyrgyz, Mongols and Russians.

Right now, the Chinese government is facilitating the cultural genocide of the Uyghur population in China. Through tactics of digital surveillance and political re-education camps, Uyghur people are being forced to assimilate to Chinese Han culture.

The Uyghur population in China, at about 12 million people, exists in its own ethnic region, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), and as a Muslim minority within the country, has its own culture and traditions. The region used to be called East Turkestan until it was annexed by China in 1945. According to the Center for World Indigenous Studies, the proportion of Uyghur people living in the area has decreased from 94% to 45% since the annexation. This is a direct result of the Chinese government systematically relocating Chinese Han people into the region.

Part of the definition of genocide is the act of the oppressor to limit the culture of the oppressed. In the case of the Uyghurs, the Chinese government is taking actions to directly exterminate the cultural practices of the Uyghurs, and is consequently committing genocide against the Uyghurs.

As of January 2018, the Chinese government began placing Uyghur people in “political re-education” camps, where they are forced to reject their religion and culture. The government has imprisoned tens of thousands of Uyghurs, and have killed thousands more, according to the Center for World Indigenous Studies. The two main reasons for being put in the camps or prison is disrespect towards the government, no matter how small, and partaking in Uyghur culture.

…Will I ever be able to know what happened [to my brother] during 2009-2013 [when he was in prison]?”

— Hoernisa Cohen

Hoernisa Cohen, a Uyghur woman who moved from China to Minnesota in 2001, has first-hand experience with the consequences for disagreeing with the Chinese government.

“One of my older brothers, he was in prison from 2009-2014. His crime is first being a Uyghur…my brother made one comment [about the government]…[and] they arrested him,” Cohen said.

Because Cohen’s family is still in Xinjiang, her own status as someone living abroad does not ease her mind about the danger of the camps.

“Anyone who travels abroad, or anyone living abroad, their family members…are taken to the concentration camps. Anyone who has relatives overseas are taken to the concentration camps. So I haven’t been able to connect with my family members in little over two years, I don’t know where they are, I don’t know if they’re alive, [I’ve tried calling] but no one answers the phone,” said Cohen. “Are they in the camps? If they are in the camps, are they alive?”

Cohen is not the only Uyghur person living in the United States that has these questions floating through her head.

“This is the life of every Uyghur person I know…every Uyghur person I know has had one or two family members taken away,” Cohen said.

Besides the looming threat of the camps, the Chinese government has also encouraged cultural assimilation of the Uyghurs through its pervasive presence in everyday life. The Chinese government has essentially outlawed the Uyghur culture, and with its extensive technology, forces Uyghurs to adhere to Chinese Han culture.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Chinese government has actually collected biometric data, such as DNA samples, voice samples, blood samples, iris scans and fingerprints, of every Uyghur person between the age of 12 and 65. Each Uyghur is assigned an ID card containing this information that they must use to pass the high number of security checkpoints.

In some local regions of the XUAR, each household has a QR code that government officials can scan to get detailed information about the inhabitants, including their biometric data, says Human Rights Watch.

Government officials have also installed CCTV cameras in towns that monitor the actions of the Uyghurs living there. Because of the constant monitoring as a result of these cameras, many Uyghurs shun their own cultural practices out of fear that they will be seen, and taken away for it, according to Human Rights Watch.

Many Uyghur households have also been assigned a “relative” by the Chinese government, through a program called Becoming Families. This “relative” is in reality a Chinese official that lives with the family to monitor them. Families that have been labeled as “politically untrustworthy” are forced to host the official for longer periods of time.

Although Cohen never lived with a Chinese official, her family did, and their presence limited her ability to talk with her family.

“I was not even allowed to talk to [my brother] about his prison life, because we had a police designated person staying at my sister’s house…Basically what they said is they want this person to accompany you, for safety…and they said I cannot talk to [my brother] without this police designated presence, so I cannot even get one minute alone with my brother,” Cohen said.

Right now, Cohen is working to raise awareness about the Uyghur genocide. As a Uyghur, the choice to do so was, and still is, fraught with fear for her family.

“I still didn’t do anything openly [in 2011] because I was worried my family would be taken to prison…[but] I still could not save my family…I’ve realized in the last four months…[that] I cannot protect my family because we’re Uyghurs, so I better exercise my rights. So that’s why I started to speak out,” Cohen said.

This past November, a bill was introduced to the U.S. Congress that would legally recognize the Uyghur genocide, and attempt to hold China accountable.

Cohen’s advocacy mostly revolves around this bill. It wasn’t passed in the 2017-2018 legislative session, but it is likely going to be reintroduced in the 2019-2020 legislative session.  

“My involvement is always just writing letters and calling senators, and talking to other Uyghurs,” Cohen said.

The Uyghur genocide is happening right now, and Cohen and many others are working to end it.