Last month we spoke to Abide*, a 37-year-old Uyghur woman living in Cambridge. Abide’s life in exile has taken her across the globe, from Urumqi to Istanbul to Glasgow.
Abide grew up in Aksu in the West of the Uyghur region, close to the border with Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Her mother married young and had Abide when she was just 18, so Abide’s grandparents raised her. Her childhood was disorienting at times. On her first day of school Abide’s teacher told her that there was no God, but her grandparents were religious people. So Abide grew up torn between her family’s culture, and what the state told her she should believe.
After she left school, Abide went to Xinjiang University to study tourism. She found it almost impossible to find a job after she graduated. When Uyghurs handed in their CVs they were instantly dismissed unless they were ‘Min Kao Han,’ meaning they had studied in Mandarin since primary school. Eventually, Abide found work as a translator for an American company in Urumqi that was owned by two missionaries. She translated the Bible into Uyghur for them, and they taught her about Christianity. Suddenly, after years of rigidly atheist education, Abide found herself working in a religious environment. For 24 years she had known almost nothing about Islam, but this awakened her own faith. It was difficult for her to find a copy of the Quran in Uyghur, but once she did, she fell in love with her religion. Abide soon began wearing a hijab – a decision that connected her to her faith, but that also meant she could no longer work and frequently had issues with the authorities.
In 2009 Abide was 24 and living in Urumqi. Then, in April, Abide returned to Aksu to look after her sick grandmother. Two months later, while she was still in her hometown, the clashes in Urumqi and the succeeding arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings began. Abide’s friend called to tell her about the violence.
Abide had been wearing her hijab for a couple of months, but suddenly the discrimination she faced became so pronounced she could barely leave the house. The police then began entering Uyghurs’ homes to check for any sign of religious practice. So, feeling she was no longer safe even in her own home, Abide returned to Urumqi. In the three months since she left the city had been transformed. In June Urumqi had been bustling. Now, just a few months later, the streets were deserted except for the police and surveillance cameras hovering at every corner. Just moving from one street to another meant having your ID card checked and being interrogated or told to return home.
“In June Urumqi had been bustling. Now, just a few months later, the streets were deserted except for the police and surveillance cameras hovering at every corner.”
Abide stayed in Urumqi for a few months with a friend and boy that was teaching them about Islam. Then people around him began to disappear and one day a camera appeared at his front door. Abide was again forced to move for her own safety, and the three of them relocated to Guangzho in mainland China. A month later Abide’s childhood classmate travelled to Guangzho to ask her to marry him.
The couple had their first child, a son, in 2013. The family were doing well with a successful business, but in 2015 Abide fell pregnant again. She knew that the state would not allow her to give birth to her child, so they decided to leave China. It was a long and difficult process for Uyghurs to acquire passports and by the time Abide boarded the flight, she was nine months pregnant.
The family first travelled to Turkey via Malaysia. When Abide stepped off the plane she felt like she was back in her hometown. People were kind and welcoming and there was a warm sense of familiarity. But, after living in Istanbul for four years, Abide felt the Chinese government’s long arm creep back into her life. Friends began disappearing – Abide and her husband heard that the Turkish government had arrested them and handed them over to the Chinese authorities. So, for the third time in her life, Abide was forced to move in search of safety. This time the family decided to travel to the UK. Abide’s husband left first with their two eldest sons while she stayed in Turkey awaiting her visa with the couple’s two other young children. They reunited in Glasgow a year later.
Abide knew they were safe at least, but Scotland was far from home. She often felt out of place, which was only heightened by multiple episodes of Islamophobia. In a painful echo of her experiences in China, Abide felt that wearing a hijab meant people rejected her. She was disappointed to find that in Scotland, thousands of miles from her home, she was still mistreated for expressing her religious identity. The family have since moved to a leafy village just outside Cambridge. Their children are at a local school and Abide visits the Uyghur school in Enfield once a week to spend time with her community, help her children connect with their identity and teach Uyghur language.
“Abide doesn’t want to hear any more words of condemnation from governments that are not coupled with action”
When she fled China, Abide was separated from her parents and three siblings. They used to speak on the phone once a week, but in March 2017 they lost contact. The last time she called her father, a Han woman – a stranger – picked up the phone. The woman asked who Abide was and why she was calling, which she refused to answer. The number has since been disconnected, and she has not spoken to her family since.
This loss is a reality that leaves Abide feeling hopeless. A genocide has been raging for years, and yet it still so often feels as through her community are shouting into the void. After the Uyghur Tribunal last year Abide was full of hope, but she has not seen the action she expected the searing testimonies to illicit. She believes that Michelle Bachelet’s visit to the region was a game for the Chinese Communist Party, one that the UN should never have played. Abide doesn’t want to hear any more words of condemnation from governments that are not coupled with action. Her feelings reflect a frustration that can be easily found throughout the Uyghur diaspora. After lifetimes of persecution, it’s not surprising that calls for help have turned urgent.
*We have changed Abide’s name to protect her privacy
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