Exiled Uyghurs fight for families far from home


Five years after China began the campaign of mass incarceration, cultural erasure and coercive labormost Uyghurs abroad remain cut off from their families. Many kept quiet through the first years of the camps, afraid that contacting their loved ones would draw fresh persecution. But Uyghur exiles have since grown bolder — staging protests and filing legal complaints — in calling attention to their people’s plight and taking a stand against repression.

Now, as the world’s gaze turns to beijing for the Winter Olympics, Uyghurs, along with Tibetans, Hong Kongers and Chinese human rights advocates, are calling for governments to boycott the Games and for athletes to speak out against the Communist Party. More than 240 international nongovernmental organizations, many of them human rights groups, issued a statement last week urging governments, athletes and sponsors not to legitimize China’s abuses.

Mehmut Muhammed, 44, holds a picture of his brother Hamid, who disappeared among mass arrests of Uyghurs in Xinjiang in 2017. Muhammed left China in 1997 to study in Egypt but fled to Turkey in 2017 when Egyptian authorities collaborated with the Chinese government to arrest and sport Uyghurs. “They showed the Uyghurs,” Muhammed said, “’We can get you even from Egypt.’”

(Los Angeles Times)

Portrait of a man through the reflection on a window.

Nurmuhammed Muhammeddursun, 39, at his traditional-medicine clinic in Istanbul. Multiple relatives have been taken, he says. He has no idea what has happened to his wife and four children. “I have no fear now,” he said. “I have nothing left to lose.”

(Los Angeles Times)

Uyghur students interact with Aqil Abdullah, their English teacher, at an orphanage and school for Uyghur children

Uyghur students at an Instanbul orphanage have lost contact with parents and other relatives who are detained or at risk of detention in Xinjiang, China. But they are proud to be Uyghur, they said.

(Los Angeles Times)

A man bends toward a seated woman, showing her his phone.

Abdurahman Tohti, left, and Medine Nazimi gather with Uyghurs protesting for their families in an office in Istanbul. Nazimi says her younger sister de ella was taken to the camps from 2017 to 2019, then released but detained again after a month. “I need to save my sister,” she said. “We have a right to live in this world just like everyone else.”

(Los Angeles Times)

Seen through an open door, a child climbs a tall metal fence.

A student climbs the fence as classes go on at an orphanage and school for Uyghur children in Istanbul. Many of the students and teachers there have lost family members to the camps in Xinjiang, China.

(Los Angeles Times)

A young woman sitting on a bed covers her face with both hands.

Shemsiye Ali, a 22-year-old nursing student, weeps as she talks about her family in her Istanbul apartment. It has been five years since Ali lost family members to the camps. She hears occasional cryptic hints from friends in Xinjiang that her father de ella has been “in training,” then “working” and now is “training” again — euphemisms for being in camps or in forced labor.

(Los Angeles Times)

Abdurahman Tohti, a Uyghur living in Istanbul, holds up two images of his son Abdulaziz.

Abdurahman Tohti, a Uyghur living in Istanbul, holds images of son Abdulaziz. Tohti, who lost contact with this family, said in 2019 he spotted the boy in a video on Douyin, China’s version of Tiktok (left image). He was shouting answers to a stranger questioning him in Mandarin: “What is the name of your homeland?” “The People’s Republic of China!” “What is the homeland’s flag?” “Red flag with five stars!”

(Los Angeles Times)

A man stands next to bookshelves, looking up.

Abductolil Turan, founder of Teklimakan Uyghur Publishing House in Istanbul, stands among Uyghur books of history, religion and literature. He’s working on a Uyghur Islamic encyclopedia to create a comprehensive record of Uyghur knowledge, faith and culture, he said, fearful those things will disappear.

(Los Angeles Times)

Two young women in head scarves walk by a produce stand.

Two young women walk through an Istanbul neighborhood. Turkey is home to some 50,000 Uyghurs, according to diaspora groups’ estimates. But many Uyghurs fear their refuge will not last as the nation slides into economic crisis and China’s global influence grows.

(Los Angeles Times)

A child in a backpack slips through a school door.

A student enters a classroom at an orphanage and school for Uyghur children in Istanbul.

(Los Angeles Times)

A man stands near a ferry railing looking at a choppy sea.  Gulls fly in the background.

Abdurahman Tohti, 32, takes a ferry in Istanbul. He said in 2017 his wife and children went to Xinjiang for a family visit and were caught up in mass arrests. He said he’d been protesting for his family since 2019. Now, his application for Turkish citizenship has been rejected and his Chinese passport is set to expire. “I don’t feel safe here,” Tohti said. He wants to leave. But he doesn’t know where he can go.

(Los Angeles Times)

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