'China, where is my family?' Uighurs in the US speak out on plight of missing relatives in Xinjiang

Uighur protest US
11 min read
17 June, 2021

Ilshat Kokbure is an ethnic Uighur activist based in New York who fled China after he felt his life was in danger. In 2003, he was subjected to torture and beatings from Chinese police whilst being in Xinjiang, due to a protest he organised speaking out against early oppressive policies of the Chinese government against the Uighur community.

 “I was tortured and interrogated in China whilst police used electric rods to hurt me. They kicked and punched my mouth so hard that it was bleeding uncontrollably,” Kokbure tells The New Arab. 

Kokbure explains how he had experienced signs of a growing rise in discrimination against Uighurs and their right to practice their religion freely from an early age and this only further worsened in the years to come. 

“My grandfather was an Imam in the mosque but was forced to work as a carpenter and not allowed to fast. I remember when I was young I  would wake up at midnight and saw my grandparents would cover the windows and lock the door from the inside to start their fast secretly during Ramadan.”

"When I was young I  would wake up at midnight and saw my grandparents would cover the windows and lock the door from the inside to start their fast secretly during Ramadan"

The Chinese Communist Party reportedly would send police to come and check houses to see whether Uighurs were fasting or not. “My grandparents had to pretend that they were eating otherwise they would be in trouble,” said Kokbure. 

Kokbure became a professor in a teacher training college near the town of Urumqi and recalls being restricted from practising the Islamic faith. One of his students was arrested just for praying in his dormitory. “He was a good student and in order to get him back we had to bribe the police officer.”

In 2001, China abolished the teaching of the Uighur language in schools and began intensifying its crackdown against its Uighur population. 

Uighur protest US
Activists participate in a demonstration against the 2022 Olympics in China, at Lafayette Square in Washington, DC [Getty]

“ I personally continued to practice my religion openly as it is written in the constitution that we can, but the Chinese Communist Party said that neither teachers nor pupils could practice Islam. I was then dismissed from my teaching position and blacklisted by the Chinese Communist Party and that’s when things started getting dangerous.”

A friend of Kokbure’s who worked for a political division of the Chinese police informed him that it would be better if he immediately left the country. “He told me if I didn’t leave I would be killed.

“The Chinese government actually planned a car accident to kill me but thankfully the plan didn’t work. I decided to flee the country and I applied for a passport but it got rejected. I went to Urumqi and my friend was eventually able to arrange a passport for me.”

"If I didn’t leave I would be killed"

Shortly after quickly bidding farewell to his family and fleeing China, he travelled to seek a safe sanctuary in Malaysia. Kokbure applied to the United Nations as a political asylum and was able to resettle in New York in 2016. After newly moving to the US, Kokbure received a number of threatening phone calls from China. 

“It was soon after that I found out that my younger brother was killed after a Chinese mob stabbed him to death while he was in a restaurant.  I believe this was done out of revenge by the Chinese government as I had escaped the country. The pain of losing my brother in this way was absolutely unbearable.”

When Kokbure fled China he left behind his son, ex-wife, parents and siblings. In August 2014, the Chinese government got the police to burst into his sister’s home at midnight and arrested one of his three sisters. 

“They openly told my second sister ‘let your brother contact us if you want to know where your other sister is.' Since then she was sent to an undisclosed place and we don’t know where she is.”

In a heartbreaking moment where Kokbure was able to get through to his mother on the phone, he found out that his father had passed away as the pain of his brother’s death coupled with his sister being detained was too much to bear.

“My mother urged me not to call them but she hopes God blesses me and keeps me safe. That was the last time I ever got a chance to speak to my mother and now I don’t know if she is in a concentration camp or even where she is.”

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Two years ago, Kokbure received a message from a Kazakh lady who informed him that she had been in a cell with one of his sisters in a concentration camp. She also stated that his sister’s husband, daughter and other sister were all put into camps.

“The police told them that the problem is me and that until my death they won’t be able to come out of the concentration camp. I don’t know whether they are dead or alive now.” 

Kokbure believes that the Chinese Communist Party is “dehumanising Uighurs” and vows to continue his fight for justice for his family and other Uighur families who have been forcibly separated from their loved ones. 

“The police told them that the problem is me and that until my death my family won’t be able to come out of the concentration camp. I don’t know whether they are dead or alive now” 

Shayida Ali , 24, shares a similar plight having grown up in Xinjiang and has witnessed members of her family and friends disappearing and being sent to concentration camps. Ali was sent to the US by her father to study and now lives in Massachusetts with her husband and daughter. 

Ali has not seen her father for the last three years and has had trouble getting through to her family in Kashgar.

“I used to call my family to find out what happened to my father as I didn’t hear from him for some time. When I called my mum she was afraid to talk to me and didn’t tell me anything about what happened to my father.”

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In May 2017, Ali found out that her father was detained and put into a concentration camp. 

“That is the time when I lost total contact with him. I miss him a lot and wish that I could talk about the things that are happening in my life with him.”

Ali’s mother had deleted connections with her on social media due to safety issues as her uncle was sentenced to 20 years in prison for no reason and she isn’t aware of the condition of her other family members including that of her own father.

“I am afraid to imagine what happened to him. Knowing that he is somewhere where he is not safe and where he is being detained worries me day and night. I really miss him and wish I could see him and talk to him.”

The separation from family members has impacted Ali’s wellbeing and she is concerned that as each day passes, more needs to be done to work towards accountability and justice. 

“If I think negatively it would be very dangerous and would only harm me, as I am living here alone with my family while my father is suffering. I pray every day for my family’s safety.”

Uighur protest US
Supporters and members of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement rally outside the White House to urge the United States to end trade deals with China [Getty]

Activism has been a vital means of Ali’s work in the US and she has joined protests and called on world leaders to take “measurable action against China”.

“Our Uighur family members are not just statistics or numbers. It is our fundamental right to be in contact with our family and we will keep on fighting for their human rights.”

Ali demands the freedom of her father and other Uighurs and regularly appeals for information on their wellbeing whilst using activism to raise awareness.

“I want the world to imagine what it is like even living a week not knowing what happened to your loved one, not knowing what happened to your parents and the pain, stress and worry of that. We have to live for years without knowing what the condition of our families are don’t know whether we would ever be able to reunite.”

“Our Uighur family members are not just statistics or numbers. It is our fundamental right to be in contact with our family and we will keep on fighting for their human rights”

Rayhan Asat is a Harvard graduate and Uyghur lawyer based in the US. Her brother Epkar Asat was selected to take part in the US State Department International Visitor Leadership Programme (IVLP) where he travelled around the US and represented China on the world stage. However, when he returned to China he was sentenced to 15 years in prison without trial and put into a concentration camp.

“My brother was selected to be part of the prestigious programme which many world leaders like Theresa May, Margaret Thatcher and Gordan Brown had once been on. He had been invited by the United States to represent the diverse Chinese society which includes Uighurs but unlike his cohort members who were Hans Chinese, my brother was sent to a concentration camp and languished into these camps.”

Asat saw Ekpar for the very last time whilst he was on a short visit to New York and told her he'd be back for her Harvard Law graduation with their parents. Shortly after her brother returned to China from the IVLP programme, her parents told her that they all could no longer attend the graduation ceremony. 

“It didn’t make sense that they cancelled to come to my graduation as they were really looking forward to it and they gave some external reasons that just didn’t add up. It was then that I tried calling my brother but he was unreachable.”

Asat explains how it was thought her brother just “vanished”. 

“Whenever I asked my mum about my brother she would just cry and not tell me anything. Initially, I thought these kinds of things happen in China when people go on international travel sometimes people get detained and then get released. I thought this could be the case with my brother and never thought this would be something like him being in a mass detention camp.”

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For three years and eight months, Asat describes reaching out to his Han Chinese friends in China to find out what had happened to her brother, until a point when she felt that more needed to be done if she was ever going to reunite with him. After initial fears of retribution towards her family, if she were to speak out, Asat decided to openly advocate and raise awareness.

Missing Uighurs protest US
A display shows photographs of prominent Uighur intellectuals detained by China as protesters gather across from the Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles [Getty]

In mid-January of this year, Epkar was seen in a 20-minute video, a video she believes may have been released due to her advocacy. 

“He looked a shadow of his former self. He had developed black spots on his face and had lost a tremendous amount of weight in the video. There were definitely signs of unspeakable suffering and he must have been through some form of torture. I found out that since January 2019 he was in the concentration camps and has been in solitary confinement.”

The Chinese government stated that Epkar was convicted for ‘inciting ethnic discrimination’ allegations that Asat strongly condemns the government for. 

“They are accusing a person who is promoting diversity and better relations and it makes it laughable at best as it only exposes how these are trumped-up charges against him. Now they have changed the conviction to ‘inciting splitism’ and they cannot decide what they want the reason to be. It only shows how arbitrary the injustice is.”

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Epkar was just 29-years-old when he was taken to the concentration camp and was viewed as a model citizen of China, as described by their Chinese state media newspapers. Asat had also actively contributed to building bridges between China and international countries and arranged the first Turkey-China conference in 2012.  

“Epkar was in the good graces of China. He was viewed as a model citizen of China, a bright star in the tech world and these are the Chinese government’s own media outlets describing him saying that he was 'consistently spreading positive energy and a positive force' but even he couldn’t escape these camps.”

Noting the irony of China’s decision to detain her brother, who China had once spoken of so positively, Asat believes that there is a racist element to the crackdown that is not only confined to religion. Asat’s family do not ascribe to any religion and come from a secular Uighur background. 

“ I feel that there is more of a racist component to the Chinese government’s crackdown on Uighurs. The CCP doesn’t view the Uighur culture as a culture that should be proud to celebrate the diversity that China has or allow pluralism to survive and thrive. If they (the Chinese government)  go after families like mine, do you think the average Uighur families are safe?” 

Asat continues to fight for justice through her activism and call for the freedom of her brother with the hope that one day Uighurs will be able to reunite with their loved ones. 

Tasnim Nazeer is an award-winning journalist, author, and Universal Peace Federation Ambassador. She has written for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, Middle East Eye, CNN, BBC, and others.

Follow her on Twitter: @TasnimNazeer1