“Still, we speak”
Uyghurs in the United States tell the stories about those detained in China
On a cloudy fall morning, Aziz Sulayman showed up outside the White House wearing a suit with a bright blue tie and matching baseball cap, the color of the East Turkestan flag. He stood in a line of about 20 Uyghurs waving flags and holding signs, shouted along with the call-and-response chants (“Grant refuge to Uyghurs!”), and stepped forward to translate for a woman speaking about her time in a reeducation camp in China, pausing while she choked back tears.
Despite concerns they’ll cause trouble for family members still in China, some Uyghurs in the United States are exhausting all avenues to draw attention to the Chinese government’s oppression of ethnic Uyghurs living in Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in western China, which some Uyghurs call East Turkestan. Since 2017, the Chinese government has placed more than 1 million Uyghurs in reeducation camps, where they endured brainwashing classes, torture, and forced sterilization. Some have now been transferred to long-term detention, and others have been released or forced into work placements.
Sulayman lives with his wife, a poet who writes under the pseudonym Gulruy Asqar, in a newly developed neighborhood in Fredericksburg, Va. A dentist in the Xinjiang capital of Ürümqi, Sulayman came to the United States in 2009 and now works in data analytics. Each weekend they pick up their daughters from the University of Virginia. Stacks of their paintings of flowers and ocean scenes fill an upstairs bedroom.
Asqar doesn’t like long drives, but Sulayman regularly travels to attend protests. He sometimes brings small laminated posters. One is a photo of his brother, Alim Sulayman, who has been in custody in Xinjiang since 2016, when he was detained after visiting Turkey to study the Turkish language. On a video call, a woman Asqar knows in Xinjiang showed her toothpicks in the shape of 17 to tell them he’d been sentenced to 17 years. Another poster features Asqar’s brother-in-law, Azmat Bahti, who was also detained.
Sulayman and Asqar try to call attention to their detained family members, hoping public pressure will drive China to release them. Asqar writes poems and essays, and Sulayman shares tweets calling on the United States to prioritize Uyghurs’ asylum applications. When they saw the State Department featuring detainees in social media posts, they emailed until the department added Alim to the series. They were encouraged when former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared China’s repression of Uyghurs genocide in January, but said they’ve been disappointed by the lack of follow-up action. They want the United States to boycott the 2022 Olympics in Beijing and declare Xinjiang an occupied country, not a mistreated part of China.
Other Uyghurs in the United States are also telling their stories, including 39-year-old Zumret Dawut, who wore a dress embroidered with reindeer to the White House protest. Through a translator, she talked about the 62 days she spent detained in Ürümqi in 2018. Dawut said police called her to a local station, led her down to the basement, and tied her to a chair for interrogation. They asked about her bank transactions and phone calls, she wrote in a statement for the London-based Uyghur Tribunal. Authorities then took her to a detention camp and held her in a cell so crowded that the women inside had to sleep in shifts. Dawut recalled guards drew her blood every two weeks and forced her to take unknown medication.
Authorities released her because her husband is Pakistani. She said she later submitted to being sterilized, worried they would detain her again if she refused. Dawut told The Washington Post her family got permission to visit a sick relative in Pakistan, then came to the United States on a tourist visa and applied for asylum.
After Pompeo mentioned Dawut’s case in 2019, China’s state-run Global Times published a video of Dawut’s brother, who still lives in Xinjiang, contradicting her story. She told the Post she believes he spoke under duress. Sulayman and Asqar have lost touch with relatives who have deleted their contacts on WeChat, likely out of fear of retaliation from the Chinese government. Sulayman’s uncle picked up a call once, but immediately hung up.
Despite the risks, Asqar continues to tell her relatives’ stories to whoever will listen: “It might go to two ends. It might help them, or it might cause retaliation [against] other family members. We don’t know, but still, we speak.”