It Doesn’t End Here

I wasn’t planning to meet with a newly released Guantanamo Bay prisoner, whom I’ll refer to as Mehmet. It was more of an accident, a lucky encounter. The restaurant owner of one of Istanbul’s Uyghur restaurants, a friend of my father, had invited my brother and I for dinner. During the dinner, he had casually introduced his younger brother who was sitting on the other end of the restaurant. He told us that his brother had spent time in the Guantanamo prison. Mehmet was one of 22 Uyghur Guantanamo Bay prisoners who were wrongly convicted of being involved in 9/11. They were captured in eastern Afghanistan, where they had escaped to in order to flee Chinese persecution. According to a number of reports, the US had detained these Uyghurs at a time when it was heavily dependent on Afghan proxies who accepted monetary incentives for captives.

Mehmet came over to meet us, and said he knew our father. I told him about my project and then asked him if I could interview him. Mehmet laughed lightly and said that 1) I wouldn’t be able to handle it. There was a lady who listened to his experiences of him in the prison and she busted out crying in the middle, 2) He’s had bad experiences with translators who poorly translated what he said, resulting in humiliation, and 3) He and his fellow Uyghur inmates made a promise upon release that they would not agree to tell media about their experiences.

For the past seven weeks, it never really bothered me when the Uyghurs I asked to be interviewed refused. I would tell myself that it was no big deal, and that I would continue asking people until someone said yes. But I wanted to interview Mehmet so badly – I wanted to know specifically how, from his own words, he ended up in one of the world’s most notorious prisons because he happened to escape China and be at the wrong place at the wrong time. I wanted to know the prison conditions, even though I knew that the CIA had already released torture reports that I could read online if I wanted to. I knew I was being quite selfish – not only because I’d wanted to incorporate him into my film, but also because I was so disappointed about the rejection afterwards.

To cope with this rejection, I had to remind myself that the information I’ve attained in the past two months is enough to shed light on what’s been going on in East Turkistan. I’ve gathered over 25 hours of footage—coming from men, women, and children who recounted the horrors that they’ve lived through. Each interview has new and unheard information. I’m already overwhelmed at how I’m going to have to choose the “most important” portions of their interviews to include in the documentary.

Part of my plan for this fellowship was to also interview the diaspora population living in Turkey’s city of Kayseri, where I was told that thousands of Uyghurs have newly arrived. But I realized that it takes a long time to find people who’d be willing to speak – I was pretty lucky with recruiting interviewees in Istanbul due to family connections; however, even with these connections, I still needed a full two months to focus on Istanbul. If I were to go to Kayseri, I would’ve needed an ample amount of time to recruit potential interviewees.

Overall, I am grateful for these past two months. I feel like I have come back to the States as a completely different person, someone who’s been able to briefly immerse herself in some of the world’s unknown injustices. I feel like I have come back to the States with a different and reformed world view and have realized how incredibly lucky I am to be living in the US. I have come back to the States with bigger plans, to hopefully make this documentary into something that can be seen by millions. I hope this project will be the first step into creating something bigger and better—something that will finally serve as a voice for the silenced 35 million Uyghurs trapped in their homeland.

A Different Eid

Eid is supposed to be a time of happiness—and don’t get me wrong, it is. It’s the holiday celebrated by 1.6 billion Muslims twice a year, one of them marking the end of Ramadan. Bright colors fill the streets, strangers greet one another, families are united, kids are showered with money and gifts, sweets are made, and, in Muslim countries, most work places are closed. But for some, this time becomes a holiday of forced happiness, one filled with the remembrance of their pain. Perhaps it is the first Eid without loved ones because some of them have been imprisoned; perhaps it is the first Eid not in their motherland because they have fled from persecution; perhaps it is the first Eid where they cannot afford a proper feast because their new arrival means that no one in the family can work yet. For the first time in my life, I immersed myself in an Eid that was exactly like that. Clearly, I myself did not experience it, but I could sense the pain and anxiety that had come from it.

Eid is generally celebrated for three days. I spent the first two immersing myself in what I’ve always associated Eid with: excitement, happiness, and warmth. The relatives and family friends I had visited had all been long-settled Uyghurs, who had come to Turkey decades before. Their houses were spacious and beautifully furnished, and the families had greeted me excitedly. For the first time in weeks, my conversations with Uyghurs had nothing to do with East Turkistan, China, or the oppression happening back home. It was Eid, and we celebrated by going out to the Friday bazaar, buying clothing, playing with stray cats, and eating ice cream.

It wasn’t until the third day when I would sense an Eid quite the opposite. One of the newly arrived refugees who I quickly conversed with two weeks prior, Maryam (who I’ve referred to in previous posts), had invited me and my brother to come over for lunch. I could sense grief the moment Maryam’s son had escorted us to their apartment; he walked ahead of us quietly with his head down, only saying a few sentences to introduce himself.

The home was on the seventh floor of an old apartment building with no elevator—an immediate indication to me that their choices of affordable homes were limited. I continued to feel the pain and anxiety when Maryam’s husband opened the door—half of his face was hidden behind the door as he quietly greeted “Assalamu alaykum” and let us in. The conditions of the home were deplorable; the walls were cracked and the home scantily furnished. Maryam walked into the living room and greeted us quietly. The conversation was dark as her husband talked about their current situation and imprisoned daughter. Maryam chimed in occasionally with heavy breathes in between. Her hands also shook as she poured tea into cups, something I assumed showed her emotional instability. Her two teenage sons continuously walked in and out of the room, bringing fruits and utensils to the table. They later sat down and listened in on the conversation with exhausted eyes.

After eating lunch, I retreated into a different room to pray the afternoon prayer. As I was finishing up the prayer, Maryam came into the room and sat down next to me. We continued to converse. She told me things that she didn’t tell me during the interview, like how she was grateful that her sons knew and practiced their religion – but it was under dangerous conditions that they received this education. Back in East Turkistan, she had sent them to an Islamic Sunday School that took place in a moving van. That was their way of avoiding being caught by the Chinese officials.

She then showed me a picture of her one-year-old son, who was left behind back in East Turkistan because he had no birth certificate. Because China prohibits Uyghurs from having more than two children, Maryam had to make her last five children undocumented. A friend of Maryam is currently taking care of her son, and is trying hard to obtain a fake birth certificate and passport for him so he can later join his family in Turkey.

It was with this particular event that I realized how bad the Uyghur situation is in East Turkestan. If I want others to know these stories through a documentary, then I’m going to need to make the film good—really good. I don’t have much filmmaking experience, so for me to create a documentary that might turn out amateur could demean this whole project and my interviewees. I want to do something bigger, and have this fellowship be the first step. I met an Uyghur college student who just graduated with a degree in cinematography here in Turkey, and was telling me that my project is something that thousands of Uyghurs, including himself, dream to do. But, unfortunately, to embark on a project without facing retribution isn’t possible since they still have family back home. He said he would be willing to help me with this project if he were not living in East Turkistan. He suggested that I take this project slow and get professional help along the way—a piece of advice that I took to heart.

It was also with Maryam’s lunch invitation that I sensed her eagerness for us to continue our friendship. She wanted our relationship to be more than just an interviewer/interviewee relationship. And I’m grateful for her eagerness; it was through our continued friendship that has allowed me to immerse myself in her life as a refugee, making it easier for me to share her life story with the world.

Ahmed’s Story

On July 5, 2009, peaceful protests by Uyghurs in East Turkistan’s capital city of Urumqi turned into violent clashes between the Uyghurs and Han Chinese. It became one of the bloodiest and largest riots in Uyghur history, with over 200 killed and over four thousand Uyghurs arrested. Since the event, there have also been numerous cases of disappearance of suspects, breaches of due process, torture, and death sentences.This week I was able to interview one of the suspects who had disappeared after the Urumqi 2009 riot. He is a young man, whom I’ll refer to as Ahmed, who had taken part in the Urumqi protest but ran away shortly after he saw his friends being arrested. Knowing that he would be imprisoned and most likely killed if Chinese officials found him, he had been living as a runaway for seven years within his own city. He managed to escape to Turkey a couple months ago on a fake passport.

He told me that it wasn’t until that event when he started to truly despise China. The riot was a turning point in his life—as an escapee, he has always lived with fear of being found by the Chinese officials. For Ahmed to simply go out and run an errand was a huge risk. Several of my interviewees informed me that Chinese police officers often stop Uyghurs on the streets to ask them for their ID’s, a horrifying occurrence for the many Uyghurs who are either undocumented or on China’s wanted list. Ahmed ended up getting unofficially married by doing a small Islamic nikkah, but without a marriage certificate. He had six children, all of whom had to be undocumented. Now he’s trying to figure out how his wife and children will join him in Turkey. I wasn’t able to get much information regarding how he escaped China, but he told me he managed to obtain a fake passport using someone else’s ID. He was incredibly nervous throughout the interview, trying his best not to be too specific. Mid-interview, there was a heavy moment of silence as he let out his tears.

This interview was the first time I felt obliged to end the interview faster. Previous interviewees who had agreed to be interviewed didn’t seem as nervous as him. He had mentioned his children and wife a few times, saying that he couldn’t even be like Turkey’s stray cats that could come home to its litter of kittens. He knows that seeing his family again is not guaranteed and that, even if his wife and children manage to escape, it would be through perilous, dangerous routes through neighboring countries.

Throughout my stay, I’ve also found out that many Uyghurs have been preparing themselves to wage a war against China. Eight of Ahmed’s brothers are currently in Syria fighting the Assad regime in order to gain militant combat experience. His elderly father who is also in Turkey has been trying to figure out how he can join his sons in Syria. A 21 year old newly-arrived Uyghur told me that she can’t enroll in one of Turkey’s universities because none of them offer her desired major that would allow her to become a war pilot. Learning this has allowed me to sense the amount of frustration and pain they have been enduring, enough for them to prepare for physical retribution.

An Eventful Ramadan

This Ramadan I’ve found the fasting to be quite hard. I (and other fasting Muslims) get pretty exhausted by the time it’s mid-afternoon, a time when the hunger and thirst starts to kick in and all the body yearns for is rest. Last week, just traveling to Zeytinburnu, a 40-minute route, everyday to do interviews and go to the Quran study group was exhausting.

But this week was particularly harder because, instead of interviewing, I joined 28 Uyghur children on their Sunday school field trip to Ankara, where they showcased East Turkistan and its history/culture through performing songs, poetry, and a traditional dance. But despite the difficulty of fasting while filming dozens of young, energetic children for three days, the experience has been one major highlight of my project — not only has it given me an opportunity to film something other than interviews, but it reminded me that a prime component of the Uyghur diaspora population is children.

We stayed in Ankara for three days total. The first day, after our five-hour bus ride, we settled in at a camp center, broke our fast at the mosque where the kids would perform, and attended the mosque’s comedy show. On the second day, before the children’s performances, we went to President Tayyib Erdogan’s palace to pay respect to one of his assistants, who met with the children to show his solidarity with East Turkistan. We got to enter the mosque of the palace and then later meet Baynali Yildirim, Turkey’s prime minister. On the third day, before heading back to Istanbul, we visited the tomb of one of East Turkistan’s prominent leaders, Muhammad Amin Bughra, who helped set up the first East Turkistan Republic in 1933.

Much of the audience seemed to be awed by the performances, something that I was grateful for because they’ve been at least somewhat exposed to East Turkistan. In the past three weeks I’ve realized that, despite the ethnic kinship between Uyghurs and Turks, many Turkish people don’t know much of East Turkistan. I’ve encountered multiple Turkish people who’ve looked at me blankly when I told them I was originally from East Turkistan. Sometimes when I tried to clarify by saying I was “Uyghur Turk”, they then understood what I was talking about – an indication that many haven’t heard the name “East Turkistan” before, but only knew of the people living there. I started to realize a possible cause of this phenomenon: so far I’ve witnessed a few Uyghurs, who didn’t necessarily flee from persecution and were in Turkey to study, introduce themselves to others by omitting the name East Turkistan and rather saying they are from Xinjiang or China. I asked my father what were possible reasons for them not using the name East Turkistan. He said there were two reasons:
1) If they were planning to go back to China, they have to say they are from Xinjiang or China in order to avoid persecution and imprisonment.
2) They have been indoctrinated and brainwashed by China. When Communist China formally occupied East Turkistan in 1949, the Communist party “twisted the narrative 180 degrees” by claiming that it was not an occupation, but a liberation of the Uyghurs. Many Uyghurs living in East Turkistan today don’t know that they are living in occupied territory, especially since opportunities to learn about its history is banned in China. Many haven’t even heard the phrase “Sherqi (East) Turkistan” or have seen its light blue flag before because the Uyghurs living there are afraid of saying it (even saying “Sherqi Turkistan” or possessing a flag results in persecution and imprisonment). Thus, although many Uyghurs have likely seen the oppression towards their fellow people, they’ve never really had the chance to develop nationalistic pride for East Turkistan– because they don’t know they could have Uyghur nationalism in the first place. And even if they do know that they could have Uyghur nationalism, they’ve been indoctrinated and assimilated into Chinese culture enough to the point where they’ll say they’re from China.

On our bus ride back to Istanbul, I ended up having a casual interview with one of the boys. He was born in Syria in 2006, but he and his family had moved to Turkey a few years before the Syrian civil war began in 2011. One thing that struck me during our conversation was his response when I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He said he wanted to go to East Turkistan and become a military general to fight China. Knowing that he’d never even been to East Turkistan, and thus never faced the oppression there, I was stunned at how adamant he was about the independence movement at such a young age.

Talking to him reminded me that the children’s parents, who have all lived through the oppression first-hand, want their children to continue their legacy and represent East Turkistan. They immerse them in Uyghur culture at a young age, teach them their history and current situation, and tell them that they indeed have a country of their own. They want their children to be a source of answers when someone asks what East Turkistan is.
I didn’t realize how hard it is to get interviews until I got back to Istanbul. Most people I’ve asked to interview have refused because doing so would possibly result in persecution of their family back in East Turkistan. Even though I assured them they would be anonymous and that I would not include identifiable information, they were still very reluctant. I started to get stressed because the main reason I had come to Turkey was to hear the stories of the Uyghur population, and only a few people were willing to let me hear them.

Their fear of being interviewed showed me the extent of oppression that many of the refugees still face. By threatening their families, China manages to control them even after they’ve fled. Although the diaspora population can exercise most freedoms in Turkey, like freedom of religion, the threat of Chinese punishment hinders their freedom of expression. What frustrates me is that the Uyghurs who have been direct victims of injustice have so much to say — yet when they are given the opportunity to break their forced silence, they, in reality, cannot. Many of the refugees also have to bear the pain of being separated from family or knowing that they are being tortured. Maryam, who I referred to in my previous post, won’t see her daughter for at least seven more years. Nothing can guarantee her daughter being able to escape China once she’s released from prison. I’ve met multiple fathers who managed to escape first but are still waiting for their wife and children (some of whom are undocumented if they exceed the 2-child policy) to obtain passports. One of my interviewees said that he couldn’t even be like Turkey’s stray cats, many of which can be with its litter of kittens everyday.

There are some who haven’t been as reluctant to be interviewed, however. Many of those who agreed told me they were grateful for the opportunity to speak. Maryam told me that she’s been waiting so long for someone to tell everything to. She said that not a single journalist had come to them while back in East Turkistan (because journalists are barred from entering the East Turkistan region) and that I was probably the first person to come to Turkey to broadcast their voices. So when I interviewed her, she vented for four hours and even asked if I could stay for iftar and sleep over so she could continue—but I promised her I would meet up with her again another time because it was late and I didn’t want to bother. What struck me the most though was that, during the interview, Maryam referred to a notebook of notes she prepared a few days before so she wouldn’t forget to say an important point. She had written more than thirty pages and told me she had not finished. Before I left her house, she ripped out those pages, told me to bring them to America and have them translated, and share them with the world.

Crossing Barriers and Borders

This past week was both beautiful and overwhelming. Because Uyghur and Turkish people are both Turks and I’ve immersed myself in Uyghur culture growing up, I wasn’t expecting much of a culture shock. But this week was the complete opposite of my expectations—never before have I felt so lost and amazed at the same time.

I had to get used to the crowded neighborhoods, narrow alleyways, stray cats and dogs, dusty streets, young and old beggars, lurking cigarette smoke, crazy drivers who give no right of way to pedestrians and love honking their horn, and the ridiculous traffic that forces people to just take the metro train/bus.  And then there are the countless mosques, with their beautiful calls to prayer that go off simultaneously and echo through the busy streets (For the first time in a very long time, I didn’t have to wake up to my obnoxious phone alarm for Fajr prayer (the Islamic prayer before sunrise)). This week was also the first time I indulged in the famous Turkish dondurma (icecream) that costs less than a dollar, and the weekly Friday bazaar that sells everything that I love—hijabs, Turkish delights, accessories, food, skirts, and more food.

And then there was also the language barrier. Like I mentioned in my previous blog, the Uyghur and Turkish language is different enough for me not to completely understand. The first day upon my arrival I had already mastered the phrase, “cok az turkce biliyorum”, meaning “I know very little Turkish”, in an attempt to mitigate any awkwardness arisen in conversations.

A relative that Oghuz (my brother whose accompanying me throughout my stay) and I had stayed with the first day emphasized to us that many Turkish people would treat us differently once they knew we don’t speak the language. And, based off the past few days, I tried to just convince myself that the people we were interacting with were just having a rough day. I remember a Turkish phone company worker had rolled her eyes when we had asked her to help us with our phone situation (btw, we had no wifi or data for three days straight – probably one of the best and worst experiences of my life). She gave off a pretty negative vibe and set the tone for how I initially viewed Turkey and its hospitality.

But, alhamdulilah (Praise and thanks to God), we had someone we knew to guide us and show us how things work.  Many refugees or immigrants don’t, and that only made me think of how much harder it is for people to adapt when the only people they have is themselves. Many learn about the country the hard way—by feeling inadequate, lost, or being taken advantage of, three feelings I felt when I didn’t have my relative with me.

By the fifth day in Istanbul, my relative brought Oghuz and me to Zeytinburnu, where most Uyghurs in Turkey live. I was grateful for the experience, because after four days of being utterly confused and overwhelmed I finally felt a bit at home. I was able to understand the signs of restaurants and shops because they were written in Uyghur, and I could understand the conversations of the Uyghur elders and children strolling down the alleyways. I could walk into a Uyghur restaurant and eat food that I normally eat at home, and could ask someone for directions without having to try to decipher what they were saying.

One of my goals for this week had been to start meeting with and getting to know some potential interviewees, before deciding to formally interview them with my camera. While in Zeytinburnu, we ate at an Uyghur restaurant and briefly met an Uyghur man who was on his lunch break (keeping him anonymous for now). I wasn’t able to ask him much, but he looked to be in 20s. I found out that he was born and raised in Turkey, and had been actively working to help Uyghur refugees in Istanbul and Kayseri. His father has been in the Chinese prisons for more than a decade, but I didn’t ask him why or how—not only because he already looked distressed and tired, but because he didn’t say the reason himself and I didn’t want to impose more negative thoughts when he had to get back to work.

While in Zeytinburnu, I also learned a bit of the political landscape in Turkey regarding China and the Uyghur diaspora population. Many who still have family back in East Turkistan cannot openly declare or show their ethnic and nationalistic pride without fearing consequences by the Chinese government. Multiple Uyghurs informed me that there is a large number of Uyghur informants in Turkey that get paid by the Chinese government to report religious and political activities that may mobilize sentiment against China. That’s why it is rare, for example, to see the East Turkistan flag hanging outside of an apartment/restaurant or for someone who still has ties in China to openly do religious activities. I had asked a lady if she would be willing to go to a Quran study group that would meet up everyday, and she told me that if she were to be seen by the informants, she would stop receiving her only source of money, or her monthly retirement pension from the Chinese government.

There’s still so much more to learn, and so much more to do. I’m just starting to realize how little I actually know about my own people. I’ll be updating y’all next week. Wish me luck!



Meet the Uyghurs

Alright. I guess this is it. I just got off a red-eye flight from DC to Amsterdam, and I’m using these three hours of waiting time to Istanbul to write my first blog post. I’m already being productive. *subtlety pats self on back*

For my project, I’ll be in Turkey interviewing the Muslim Uyghur diaspora population, who hail from East Turkistan, a nation that has been under the occupation and control of communist China since 1949. (China officially named the territory as the Xinjiang Province, which is located in the northwest part of China and literally means “new territory” in Chinese). Additionally, to shed light on this relatively unknown population, I hope to create a documentary film showcasing the past and present stories of the Uyghurs (pronounced “Oy-ghur,” not “Wee-gur”).

For those who don’t know me, I was born and raised in Northern Virginia, but my parents are from East Turkistan. My father, a Uyghur activist himself, left East Turkistan to flee Chinese persecution and has been in the U.S. since 1988. I’ve grown up constantly hearing about the injustices occurring back home, attending protests in front of the Chinese embassy in D.C. and doing projects aimed to raise awareness.

Since the 1949 Communist Chinese occupation, China has made increasing efforts to keep the spacious, mineral-rich land and its natural resources (Currently, approximately 1/3 of China’s wealth comes from the East Turkistan region[1]). Because the occupation process has been resisted (sometimes violently), millions of Uyghurs have been killed, imprisoned, and tortured within Chinese borders. These policies are large-scale and genocide-like in their effects. Most importantly, the Communist Party continues to implement subtle and gradual policies to mitigate anything that may encourage a defined and dignified Uyghur identity, especially religion and culture. For example, government workers and students are forbidden to fast during the holy month of Ramadan, women are forbidden to wear the hijab/niqab, men are forbidden to grow beards, and most of the Uyghur population are forbidden to enter mosques. China has also been forcibly assimilating and diluting the population by incentivizing Han Chinese to move into the East Turkistan region. Ethnic Han now make up around 40% of the East Turkistan population. Uyghur schools have been shut down, traditional homes and buildings have been demolished, and violence has been erupting in the region for decades. Genocide has occurred; with the most recent one being during the summer of 2014 in Yarkend, with at least 2,000 Uyghur men, women, and children killed by Chinese officials in a week.[2]

One thing that has driven me to do this project is the fact that a very small portion of the global community knows the situation of the Uyghurs in East Turkistan, let alone what or where East Turkistan is. Every time someone asks where I am ethnically from, my response takes at least 3 minutes because I end explaining to them what East Turkistan is and who Uyghurs are. And I don’t blame them at all. Uyghurs have been silenced for decades, and since China controls the media in the region the situation of the Uyghurs is never shown. In fact, China justifies its policies towards the population by identifying East Turkistan as a hotbed of terrorism, a strategy that has been effective in garnering both domestic and international opposition towards the Uyghurs. That’s why I’ve felt that creating a film could help shed light on the population who has been yearning for its voice to be heard. And one way to shed that light is to ask people who’ve lived through the experiences themselves, hence, my intention to interview and film refugees.

Thousands of Uyghurs attempt to flee China, but only the few who are granted both passports and visas make it out legally. Many of those who are denied passports use fake passports and make perilous journeys through neighboring countries. Some leave with tourist visas and then seek asylum once in the country. Currently, there are approximately 50,000 Uyghurs living in Turkey, with a great portion of them living in Istanbul. These Uyghurs consist of refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, visa overstayers, and descendants of those who originally left the country.

Ideally, it would have been best if I could do this fellowship in East Turkistan, but the situation in the region is too dangerous. Journalists who attempt to document the situation are often detained and forced out of the region. If I had gone to China, I would not only be stalked by Chinese officials (as was done before when I visited the country in 2008), but my attempt to interview and film the Uyghur inhabitants would likely put both me and the interviewees in danger.

Other than overcoming jetlag, my goals for this week is to 1) get accustomed to Istanbul, which I heard is ridiculously huge, and 2) meet up with a few Uyghurs who I have fortunately been connected through familial ties.

I’m honestly both nervous and excited; I don’t know what to expect during this journey, but I’m looking forward to what I’ll learn from it. Having mixed feelings will force me to overcome them day-by-day and help me grow into a stronger person, which is probably the best part about going abroad. Well, at least that’s the goal.

After writing this post, I should probably continue to review the list of useful Turkish phrases I made in my notebook so I’m not too overwhelmed once in the city… (p.s. the Uyghur language is similar to Turkish, but unfortunately its different enough for me not to completely understand). Or… I should probably nap since it’s been 19 hours since I’ve last slept.

Wish me luck y’all. Can’t wait for the next fruitful two months!




[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/21/world/asia/china-invests-in-xinjiang-region-rich-in-oil-coal-and-also-strife.html?_r=0

[2] http://www.rfa.org/english/news/uyghur/yarkand-08052014150547.html