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Uyghurs Stage Protest in D.C. to Denounce Chinese Oppression

By Megan Mineiro

Freedom Plaza was a swath of blue on the afternoon of April 6 as nearly 1,000 demonstrators gathered with the flag of East Turkestan to rally support for a global response to the Uyghur humanitarian crisis unfolding in China.

The Uyghurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) are an ancient people spread across much of East and Central Asia. They mainly practice Islam, speak Turkic and live primarily in Xinjiang, an autonomous Uyghur territory in northwest China that Uyghurs refer to as East Turkestan. The Beijing government officially puts their numbers at 1.2 million, although Uyghur activists say China is actually home to 15 million Uyghurs.

Recent reports from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination estimate the Chinese government has systematically interned 1 million ethnic or religious minorities from Xinjiang. Event organizers stated 2 million detainees better captures the reality on the ground and called on attendees to boycott Chinese companies and pressure their congressional representatives to support sanctions on China.

Uyghur Americans, human rights leaders and representatives from various faith-based organizations addressed the continued disappearance of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, detained within what China terms re-education centers.

Uyghurs China
Advocates claim China is carrying out cultural genocide targeting Uyghurs for their Muslim practices and use of the Uyghur language. Photo: Megan Mineiro

They also spoke on the escalation of intense surveillance of Uyghurs by the Chinese government, the shuttering and demolition of mosques and the restriction of Muslim practices and other alleged abuses — including forced marriage and organ harvesting. Speakers on Saturday, including a Holocaust survivor from Romania and a Uyghur woman introduced as a survivor, used the term concentration camps in referring to the locations where Uyghurs are detained.

Members of the Uyghur diaspora community traveled from across Canada, Europe and the U.S. to participate in the rally. Many carried photos of loved ones who they have lost communication with in China.

“You ask anyone, there is not a single Uyghur that has not lost touch with someone,” said Kayum Masimov, a coordinator with the Uyghur Canadian Society.

Masimov said the international community is watching and waiting for the U.S. to take action.

“Every time I go to the [Canadian] Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the first thing they ask is, ‘What is Washington saying?,’” Masimov said. “Whenever I go to Brussels, they ask the same. ‘What do Americans think?’”

Turkistan Demonstration
Demonstrators stand in respect as the April 6 demonstration commences with the singing of the U.S. national anthem followed by the national anthem of East Turkistan. Photo: Megan Mineiro

Two pieces of legislation addressing the violation of Uyghur human rights are currently working their way through Congress: the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act and the Uyghur Intervention and Global and Humanitarian Unified Response Act.

Organizers spoke with confidence about the impact the legislation would have on the international community’s ability to begin effectively addressing the crisis.

Uyghur prayer
Ahmed Al Hasasneh, an American of Palestinian descent, leads demonstrators in a prayer. Al Hasasneh said he stands in solidarity with the Uyghurs because his faith “advocates for standing up for the oppressed.” Photo: Megan Mineiro

Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.), a co-sponsor of the Uyghur Intervention and Global and Humanitarian Unified Response Act, sent a statement to be read aloud at the rally in solidarity with the Uyghur people.

“We have known about the restrictions imposed on the use of Uyghurs’ language and on religious practices, including the training of Muslim clerics, the celebration of Ramadan, the use of veils and the growing of beards. We have known how hard it was for Uyghurs to get passports and we have seen the reports of the forced repatriation of Uyghurs living outside of China,” the statement read, accusing China of utilizing the “so-called re-education camps” to “stamp out Uyghurs identity.”

Sami Steigmann, a Holocaust survivor who spoke at the rally, said he views many parallels between the ongoing Uyghur crisis and the systematic extermination of the Jewish people in the 20th century.

“It involves forcing you to do something, taking away your identity; there are many, many parallels.”

Uyghur China
Rebiya Kadeer, an exiled Uyghur human rights advocate, said she has lost communication with 90 family members in Chinese “concentration camps” and calls on the crowd to be “the voice of the “voiceless” and “tortured” in Xinjiang. Photo: Megan Mineiro

Taken from his native Romania and interned in a labor camp where he was subjected to medical experimentation, Steigmann said the international community needs to act now.

Representing the Burma Task Force, Hena Zuberi said she was disappointed that none of the co-sponsors of the two bills made an appearance or sent a representative to the event, including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Christopher Smith (R-N.J.). She added that Uyghur advocates hope to make the issue a foreign policy topic for the 2020 election.

“We do realize that President Trump does have strong thoughts about China. So if we can not use this moment to shine the light on this crisis, then the moment will pass.”

Zuberi also said the issue has amassed little international support in Muslim communities, unlike other humanitarian crises in places like Palestine and Syria.

“This community’s struggle has been really not paid attention to and I think that’s because, as a Muslim I can say this, a lot of the Muslim countries have deep economic ties with China and are indebted to them.”

Adili Yalihamu said he too believes Arab countries’ economic ties are the reason behind the lack of support from fellow Muslims abroad. Yalihamu moved to the U.S. from Xinjiang in 2017 to earn his master’s degree and was passing out information on his missing parents at the rally.

Yalihamu said he was once afraid to speak up for his community. But since his parents were arrested, he no longer remains silent, talking with anyone who will listen to his story. He is confident that because he studied in the U.S. and his brother in Turkey, his parents were at higher risk to be targeted by Chinese officials.

“Before my father [was] arrested, he was the vice president of his bureau, he worked for the government for 30 years and retired five years ago. Both of my parents didn’t do anything illegal in China, so this is the only thing I think, the reason.”

Michelle Sadir, whose Uyghur name is Shebnan, is an eighth-grader from Fairfax, Va., and said that she attended the rally to help raise public awareness of the Uyghurs.

“Whenever someone asks me what I am, I always say Uyghur. But they don’t even know what that is ... the first thing they assume is that I am Chinese and it actually hurts.”

The daughter of two Uyghur immigrants to the U.S., Sadir said she is fearful when speaking on the phone with her grandparents.

“You can’t even say our proper greetings,” she said. “We can’t even talk about God. If we even mention God or Allah, they’re going to be sent to a camp.”

Sadir said she has not spoken with her grandparents in months and has no news of her cousins’ safety. Yalihamu said he last spoke with his parents in December 2017 before their arrest. Every Uyghur speaker who took the stage Saturday shared similar stories of parents and siblings, cousins and classmates who have disappeared.

“The amount of surveillance, it’s terrifying. This is something out of a ‘Black Mirror’ episode,” Zuberi said. “These are a people under occupation. They have their own language, their own culture, their own country, they have been usurped into Chinese communist society and their voices need to be heard and their voices need to be saved from being wiped out.”


Megan Mineiro (http://meganmineiro.pressfolios.com) is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.



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