My Uyghur family is quietly living in fear. This is how we become lost

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Originally published by The Globe and mail in July 27, 2019   

Dilnur Kurban, who lives in Vancouver, is a Uyghur – a Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic minority in China. She still has family in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which many Uyghurs call home, but persecution and a climate of fear has made Ms. Kurban’s usual conversations with them much more fraught.


Dilnur Kurban lives in Vancouver.

I have worked extraordinarily hard to have a good, stable and ordinary life here in Canada.

I came to Canada from China in 2011 as an international student and graduated with a master’s degree in statistics from Simon Fraser University. Since then I’ve been working as a biostatistician, earning a decent life and living out my dream of helping people. I am involved in a local Toastmasters society, working to improve my public speaking and leadership skills. On weekends, my husband and I like to take online courses, as well as do fun things outside: exploring and hiking Grouse Mountain, overlooking Vancouver, and visiting the local flower festivals and orchards that remind me of my childhood.

Just last year, I became a naturalized Canadian, and I still remember the pride I felt at the citizenship ceremony. Finally, I have a safe place I can call home.

But now that I have that hard-won ordinary life, extraordinary circumstances have prevented me from truly enjoying it.

I’m a Uyghur, a Turkic-speaking ethnic minority in China. Official statistics put our numbers at about 11 million, but that comprises less than 1 per cent of China’s population – the Han ethnic group dominates, at 92 per cent. Religiously, many of us embraced Islam as early as the 10th century.

So it wounds me every time I hear more dire news out of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – the massive part of China where most of us live. These are more than just despairing yet distant news reports to me.

Of those 11 million Uyghurs, more than a million have been placed in camps, or “vocational training centres”, as China calls them – a low-ball estimate. Ethnic Uyghurs – successful businessmen, prominent intellectuals and religious leaders alike – have been disappearing, including from my hometown of Artux.

The camps are only one part of the oppression Uyghurs face. The advocacy group Chinese Human Rights Defenders found that a full fifth of all arrests in China in 2017 happened in the Uyghur Region. The Globe and Mail has reported that China’s state-of-the-art surveillance systems have trained cameras and ID scanners with facial-recognition systems on mosques, mall entrances and even city streets. The government has instituted harsh legal penalties limiting any expression of the Uyghur cultural identity, including visible symbols of Islam.

But officials have been mostly silent about the camps. After years of denying the existence of the “training centres,” Chinese officials now acknowledge that the camps are real – but that they’re intended to tackle Xinjiang’s issues with religious radicals who seek to destroy unity through acts of terror. As a Chinese delegation told a United Nations committee in 2018, China “pays special attention to respecting the religious beliefs of ethnic minorities and to protecting their cultural heritage.” State media has boasted that regional stability and economic fortunes have improved in the Uyghur Region.

Unfortunately, another kind of silence has always been a Uyghur reality: It’s the way we have always lived, the way it’s always been in China, where we stoically endure all that is unfair, because that’s just how things work. The difference now is that the stakes seem particularly high: Speaking out or going against the grain can get you sent to a camp. So Uyghurs in China go on, with little more than hope. What else is there?

My father felt the same way.

“The Artux police is one of the just ones in the region, in my opinion.” I remember him saying this three years ago, when he was visiting me in Canada. He lived his whole life in Artux, until he retired and moved to the capital, Urumqi, to help with my brother’s successful business, a startup he co-founded called Zamzambolaq International. So my dad trusted the Artux police, and obeyed when they instructed him that he could not stay longer than three months in Canada. Even when my brother-in-law was detained around the same time – jailed for the crime of sending a gift – he held tightly to his hope that the police would not be unjust.

But I have not had a conversation with my father since February. For several harrowing months, I thought he was among the missing, alongside my brother-in-law and now my businessman brother, too. Even before that, his words to me in our increasingly rare conversations were laced with obvious fear. I still don’t have a clear sense of where he is.

Silence hasn’t helped my dad. His faith in justice has not helped him live freely. And so I cannot trust that it will help me in pursuit of my family’s safety.

I can’t be quiet. It’s time for me to speak, here, because I can. Otherwise, this is how we go missing. This is how Uyghurs become lost.

I was born in the small city of Artux. Life was simple, yet absolutely carefree; without access to the internet or electronic devices, we focused instead on spending time with family, many of whom lived in Artux as well. I miss that life. I miss the fragrant cooking of my mother, a retired schoolteacher who was a bit tough on us, but never so much with me. And I miss my siblings, who would always tease me about my favourite-child status. I miss plucking delicious apricots and the distinctive Artux yellow figs from my neighbour’s lush garden. I miss my grandma’s homemade yogurt and dried fruits, all of which were made with love and care.

For 35 years, my dad, Qurban Aji, taught Uyghur literature at an Artux high school and was the school’s principal, so he was well-known in our little city. He cuts a striking figure: Tall, trim and fit, he loves to play sports, especially volleyball. But while he often has a serious face, he is really kindhearted.

He would do anything for me and my three siblings, just as any good parent would. Whenever we wanted to do or try something, he would buy us whatever we needed, such as gloves for my brothers’ briefly held dreams of becoming boxers when they were young. He showed his support for me most keenly when it came to my studies, encouraging me to take the tests required to get into a gifted program for junior high school in Artux; then, after getting into a special senior high school in Guangzhou and getting into university, he paid for the expensive tests and process for continuing my education abroad. He even supported my dream to study overseas – alone – which is hard for some conservative Uyghur parents to do. I couldn’t have done it without him.

Retirement, three years ago, was an incredible opportunity for him. Now he could see more of his four children, who had all settled down – my older brother in Urumqi, my younger brother and sister in Artux, and me in faraway Vancouver. One of the first things he wanted to do with my mother was visit me, all the way across the ocean.

So my family set about getting them travel documents. It has always been notoriously tough for Uyghurs to get passports – typically, only people with money or connections could access them – but for some reason, for a few months around 2015, Uyghurs were encouraged to apply, paying just 200 renminbi ($38). People lined up at local police stations to get theirs. My parents received their documents later that year, and after I secured their Canadian travel visas, it finally happened: They flew to Vancouver in April, 2016, for a months-long visit – their very first trip outside China.

I was ecstatic, and it was surreal to watch them walk through the arrivals gate. We hugged each other, and we wept.

The weeks my parents stayed with me are the source of some of my favourite memories. My dad was born curious, so he was eager to see and try everything he could. I took them to Simon Fraser University, where I studied, and showed them all the sights. My dad was amazed that the university entrance was marked simply by a sign, rather than ringed with walls and a closed gate, like the ones in China. They enjoyed a Mexican dance that took place on campus, near Burnaby Mountain Park. They tried foods they had only ever seen in movies, including Mediterranean dishes and pizza – though the latter was actually fairly intuitive, because of the prevalence of Uyghur naan. And my sporty dad, who would run almost every morning at the crack of dawn, even while on vacation, decided to give golf a try – the one sport he had never played, he said – and simply ambled up to a stand in a park and asked to give it a shot. No surprise: He picked it up quickly.

We took a short trip to the United States, travelling along the West Coast – the Space Needle in Seattle, Fremont Street in Las Vegas, the Hollywood glamour of Los Angeles. The three of us put together an album of photos from the trip, and my dad started writing a kind of memoir, putting to paper what he saw and thought.

But in the background of this joyous time, a dark cloud loomed. Two months before my parents arrived in Vancouver, the Artux police detained my brother-in-law, Jumaji Juma, an elementary-school teacher. The authorities had told him not to contact his half-brother in Turkey, but Jumaji sent him a gift anyway – kon’gul, a Uyghur tradition of sending a token of food or money to those close to you – through someone who was going there to visit. My parents didn’t even tell me about this whole affair until they had arrived in Canada.

The general sentiment of my family, myself included, was that Jumaji was in the wrong, since the police had already warned him. Still, my sister – a nurse in her 30s who already had a full plate with three young children, including one with Down’s syndrome – was struggling. My parents considered changing their trip plans because of this situation, but the flight was already booked, and my younger brother had insisted they visit while they could.

So we tried to focus on the fun. But then, in May, on one of his regular calls to update my parents about the status of the case, my brother informed us that there would soon be a closed-door “trial.” My parents needed to return home to help with the case and support my sister.

When they left on June 5, their mementos in tow, I remember the genuine gratitude and joy on my parents’ faces. My dad told me he was already looking forward to visiting the East Coast next time. I promised to visit them in China next September.

That would be the last time I saw their faces. And I would later learn, almost a year later, that my brother-in-law was sentenced to seven years in prison for his “crime.” I haven’t heard from him, or about him, since.

Ever since I arrived in B.C., Skype was an essential lifeline; every two days or so, I would use its audio function to call their phones. And despite the news about my brother-in-law, we kept up those regular calls after they left.

But by 2017, the reports about the camps in the Uyghur Region made me worry about the integrity of our calls, as I began to fear our conversations were being monitored – as well as about my parents’ well-being.

To that point, the full weight of the fear hadn’t really crossed the Pacific Ocean to me. I was nervous, to be sure, and looking back, there were examples of discrimination against me in my past that I hadn’t registered at the time, but I had thought I’d left that behind me. While I did not experience any obvious discrimination in my Guangzhou high school, prejudice against Uyghur students at universities, including the one I attended in southwest China, was more prevalent for me. In one advanced math course, for example, a lecturer came to me afterward and said, as if impressed by the notion of a smart Uyghur: “I saw that you were nodding your head while I was talking. It looks like you were understanding what I was talking about.” And in 2014, after I got married in Artux, my husband and I wanted to go to Beijing to visit Tiananmen Square on a stopover, before heading back home to Canada. After being inundated with questions at a checkpoint, we regretted our decision.

The situation that China’s Uyghurs are living in, though, is more than mere discrimination. By early 2017, Uyghurs had been asked to hand in their passports to the police, my parents among them. And that summer, I saw in the news that Uyghur students in Egypt were being deported back to China with the assistance of the government there. Worried about my family’s safety, I called less often. Some acquaintances started warning me about my plans for a trip home; my in-laws abruptly started claiming it was too hot in Artux to visit. It was okay, they said, with what I felt was a subtle note of caution: It wasn’t the best time.

When I talked to my dad over Skype about cancelling my trip – tiptoeing around my specific concerns – he decided to ask some friends to see what they thought. The next time we spoke, he said he felt confident that there would be no problem.

I believe my dad genuinely felt that way. Although he was aware of the “re-education” system, he truly believed it did not apply to me because of the multiple acknowledgments of my academic success and my studies in North America. Still, I called off the trip. I knew they understood, in their hearts.

But things got more intense from there. One evening in October, 2017, I called my businessman brother, Juret, to thank him for sending me a parcel from Urumqi filled with great local food. The call didn’t go through, so I called his wife. But after talking to her for a minute, my dad interrupted, in a very serious tone: “Why did you call them? Don’t call them again.” He said I could call anyone else. I was worried that something bad might happen to my brother, but I listened to my dad and haven’t called them since.

Then, the following month, I called my dad, who told me that he and my mom had been busy taking care of Juret’s young children. My brother, he said, had left to “study.”

Dad asked me to keep this to myself. He said, carefully, that it was a good opportunity for him to study the official Chinese language and learn some other skills, too. I agreed – but I immediately understood, based on what I had read in the news, what my dad likely meant.

By early 2018, my calls home had dwindled to once a week – and just to my parents. We would try to keep the conversations normal, and occasionally I would casually ask how my brother’s “study” was going and when it might be over, trying to discern something useful from my parents’ answers without risking their safety. My dad said he didn’t know much, but did tell me at one point that there was a very long lineup at the school to use the phone, which is why my brother hadn’t been able to call him earlier. Later, my dad said Juret had told him that he was among those being transferred.

“Long lineups.” “Being transferred.” These scary keywords were all I needed to know.

To this day, I do not know if my brother has been transferred to a prison in the inner provinces or if he is still in an internment camp in Urumqi. I don’t know why he was taken. I don’t even know if he is alive.

While my dad never told me to stop calling him, I knew that having a foreign contact could get someone sent to the camps. I reduced the amount of time I’d call to every other Friday night, and just for a couple of minutes, to exchange pleasantries. My heart wouldn’t stop pounding until I heard my dad’s voice. But he was devoted to these calls, even if he was in the middle of something.

Once, he told me that he was driving while he was talking to me. When I chastised him for that, he demurred: “Oh, dear daughter. It is one of the highlights of my day to receive your call and it is totally worth it to pull over and talk to you.”

By earlier this year, there was a different tone in Dad’s voice. In a conversation we had on Feb. 15, he said he was doing fine, but he sounded nervous in a way I had never heard before. He said he was glad I had called but rushed to say goodbye. The phone call lasted three minutes and 19 seconds.

Two weeks later, I called my dad again as usual.

The call didn’t connect. I tried three times, my heart pounding as usual, with no success. One time, the call connected – but Dad didn’t answer.

Pounding. Pounding. Pounding.

I called my mom, who told me that dad had been asked to go back to Artux for some “business.” It didn’t feel right, but my mom said he was probably coming back in two or three days and that I could call him then.

I called him twice more, days later. No connection.

On March 15, I called my mom to ask how they were doing and why Dad wasn’t picking up. She told me they were doing fine – but that I couldn’t talk to Dad any more. She said this firmly and seriously, with a note of unhappiness. I immediately understood what was going on and got very emotional. My mom didn’t say anything. I asked if she wanted me not to call her again. She said that she was fine, it was okay – it wasn’t the best time.

We said goodbye. The call lasted one minute and 39 seconds. I was in the car at the time. I wept uncontrollably.

This is it. This is it. That’s all that coursed through my mind once I was able to drive home. My worst fears were being realized – my father was missing, and my mother didn’t want me to call. And what did I do, as that reality loomed larger? Stay silent, just as my father did.

My brother and brother-in-law were suffering unjustly, but I was confident they were strong enough to endure an internment camp and prison – at least that’s how I justified it to myself. But now I was faced with the image of my 61-year-old father, who had neck surgery last year and has stomach problems requiring medication, in a camp.

I didn’t trust the local police, but I trusted my father. Now, he was gone.

Fast forward about two months: I’ve lost contact completely with my family. I’ve been too afraid to call them – and even if I did, they wouldn’t answer. But I devised a plan. I had a friend in China’s eastern province whose mother could call my mom – while I was also on the line. When it seemed clear that my mom had changed her phone number, which she had used for as long as I can remember, we tried calling my dad.

He picked up tentatively – and confused.

“Hi, Dad, it’s me – I haven’t been able to talk to you for some time. How are you?”

He realized it was me, and his voice hardened. “Oh. I was told not to talk to you.” Then he hung up.

It was devastating – but it was also reason for optimism. If he was in a camp, he wouldn’t be able to take the phone call at all. And when my younger brother, teaching at a high school in Artux, called my friend’s mother back, just for a minute, it suggested that my dad was with him. All he could say in that short conversation: “They are fine, they are all fine.”

This is all the information I have – these scant scraps of speculation and furtive phone calls that I read like tea leaves, trying to map out a buried path back to where my heart is.

The fear has not been easy on me. As my family slowly became unravelled over the past few years, I became wracked by psychological distress, sleeping badly and losing my appetite. I have sought counselling, to unpack some of the trauma their absences have left on me. I have suffered medical problems and haven’t been able to share them with my mother and sister, leaving me emotionally isolated – which is what led me to join Toastmasters in the first place, to try to alleviate my social anxiety.

I haven’t felt like I could talk openly about their problems, either; the vast majority of Uyghurs back home, including my parents, fear retaliation so much that they would rather not have their stories shared, and until recently, I didn’t tell anybody about what they’ve gone through. I worry that my parents wouldn’t want me to speak out on their behalf.

In my daily routines, I’m left bereft. I can’t enjoy a good meal without thinking about whether my dad or brothers are getting decent food – or any food. When I see families picnic in Vancouver’s parks, I let myself imagine gathering with my family in the same way – until I remember the stark reality, that I can’t even call them. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are just painful days in May and June, though I’m still holding on to an expensive Coach wallet I bought for my dad. Whenever I walk by someone on the street who even remotely resembles my brother, my dad or my nephew, I catch myself staring for too long, drinking them in. It leaves me drained when I admit to myself that it isn’t them.

Everywhere I’ve turned, I’ve found little support. I sought assistance from my local MP, and she was unhelpful at best. I have tried to tell my family’s story using social media. I’ve been told that my family’s information has been submitted to Global Affairs Canada, but I haven’t heard anything yet.

This has all been emotionally crushing. But once I started talking to colleagues and friends, I realized that sharing my story and helping my community are the only ways I can carry on.

I have steeled myself to be my family’s voice. And I will keep talking about their story with my colleagues, friends and the world until they are safe. I’m planning to study population health science, which would allow me to research the impact of psychological distress and trauma. My pain is hardly unique – local Uyghur friends I’ve spoken to have experienced the same – and the Uyghur diaspora will have to reckon with similar problems. I can only hope that, in the face of this crisis, Canadians find the courage, too, because as I learned the hard way, the crisis isn’t far away – it’s right here, among us.

So how will you carry on?

Will the Canadian government and non-profits make our crisis a priority? Will Canadians at large learn more about the human-rights abuses going on in China? Will Chinese citizens and Chinese-Canadians engage with Uyghurs in heartfelt and genuine dialogue and support them in any way they can?

You may think you can’t do much – that you are just an ordinary person trying to live a good and normal life. But so am I. Like anyone living abroad, I just want to talk to my family. I want to celebrate the business successes of my brother, a decent man, and thank him for being kind, for sending me delicious food and always making sure that I have enough money. I want to watch my brother-in-law continue to be a caring husband to my sister. I want my parents to get their confiscated passports back. And just as he wished, I want to visit the East Coast with my dad, a law-abiding citizen with a good heart.

Even over the phone, my parents couldn’t truly speak. There is nothing else they can do, really, other than be silent. Whatever happens to them – whether they’re found or freed – they will still be silent, because they still live there. If they show any form of resistance, they will only suffer more.

Really, they will always be silenced. It may not be what they want, but if there is to be any hope at all, all there is left for me to do is speak.

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