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). 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.
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!