In the coming months, Stop Uyghur Genocide will be telling the stories of Uyghurs in the UK. This month we spoke to Hemragul, an Uyghur woman living and working in North London.
Hemragul was born in Urumqi, the capital of East Turkistan*, the Uyghur homeland. Even as a child, she felt the weight of the Chinese government’s repression. Hemragul was denied access to secondary education because she was not allowed to wear a Hijab to school. She remembers how her Quran lessons had to be underground. These episodes of discrimination took place over a decade before the concentration camps were set up and allegations of genocide began to swirl. The vast majority of the Western World had no idea who the Uyghurs were at this point, but the human rights violations currently taking place in the region had already taken root.
When Hemragul was 19 her husband was taken to prison. He was arrested for separatism, despite never having even seen the East Turkistan flag at this point in his life. After he was arrested, Hemragul spent six months in a living nightmare, with no idea where he was – “just like snow [he] melted and disappeared.” When her husband was released, he bore the physical and psychological scars of torture. After his release, Hemragul’s husband lived with unbearable anxiety. So, in 2006, the family bribed officials to acquire passports and fled the country.
“Just like snow [he] melted and disappeared.”
Their journey was long and traumatic. Hemragul was pregnant at the time, and the couple were travelling with their two-year-old son. Hemragul told me that their lives were often under threat and had been “turned upside down,” and that she felt frightened and trapped, “I was pregnant, we couldn’t go back home, we couldn’t go forwards, [we were] just stuck there.” The first moment of relief came when the family arrived in Singapore, where an Uyghur woman helped them. This woman wanted no money, just to help. After the difficulties she had faced on the journey so far, this woman reminded Hemragul of the kindness of her own community.
After spending some time in Turkey, Hemragul and her family eventually made their way to Norway. Initially they lived in a refugee camp, where Hemragul gave birth to her daughter, Sumeye. Hemragul remembers how foreign it was to experience kindness from the authorities in Norway, and she was even able to reconnect with her community in the refugee camp, where 25 other Uyghur families were also staying. After 10 months, Hemragul and her family were settled, and they began to rebuild their lives. The family later relocated to Turkey to look after Hemragul’s unwell mother. Once her mother was in better health, they moved to the UK, where they have lived since.
“We couldn’t go back home, we couldn’t go forwards, [we were] just stuck there.”
Like so many Uyghurs living in exile, Hemragul still has family in East Turkistan, and so grief and fear are sewn into her reality. She used to speak to her family on Skype regularly. Now that she has been cut off from them completely, she regrets the phone calls that she put off because she was busy. She last spoke to her brother a year ago – the conversation lasted one minute, she asked him how he was, and that was all they could manage.
Hemragul’s stepfather died after spending a year and a half in a concentration camp. Her niece has been taken to mainland China to work in a textile factory and live with a Han ‘family,’ despite previously being a medical student. Hemragul’s oldest brother had been held in a camp, but 6-7 months ago she heard news of his release. She found out, as is often the case, via embers of information from Chinese social networking apps. Her brother changed his photograph on Douyin (Chinese Tiktok) after his release, in which he was half the size of the brother that Hemragul knew. He has now disappeared again, and Hemragul suspects he may be back inside a detention facility.
When we spoke about Uyghurs being forced to live with Han Chinese ‘relatives,’ her body visibly stiffened. She said that when she was living in the region, she could at least close the door of her own home to the discrimination she experienced outside. But now her fellow Uyghurs are forced to endure surveillance and invasion in their most intimate spaces.
The Uyghur diaspora live with pain for their people back home, but many also with their own memories of the Chinese government’s repression. Back in East Turkistan, Uyghur people never discussed what was being done to them. Hemragul drew a striking parallel between this fear and a book she read about how they teach bears to dance. First, they put hot metal bars under their feet until they jump in pain while the trainer plays music. Eventually, whenever the bear hears the music, he jumps. To the audience the bear is dancing, but really he is responding to the memory of pain. Hemragul says that this is like what the Chinese government is doing to her people. This fear, Hemragul tells me, has “settled like a sickness,” even for Uyghurs in exile thousands of miles away.
Despite the immediate struggles faced by the community, there is an insistence not just on survival, but on building back Uyghur identity with strength. Hemragul embodies this resilience as a young woman that was barred from secondary education now completing a second degree, all whilst working two jobs and bringing up four children. But her favourite part of the week is Sunday, when she teaches at the Uyghur school in North London. The school is run and staffed almost entirely by women, and children go once a week to learn Uyghur language, eat and play music. All of one week’s stress flows away on a Sunday, when mothers sit together, share food, and talk about their lives. Hemragul feels that her children have been robbed of the days sat around the table with family and friends in East Turkistan. But I can see that the community are finding a way to give their children a sense of that from this corner of London.
At the end of our conversation, I asked Hemragul what she wants the rest of the world to do. Her main ask is for us to learn about the Uyghurs and what is happening in their homeland. She says, “I want people to know that this is not a story that we have just come up with, this is reality. It sounds like a story, but it is real.” She also asks us to boycott Chinese products, and to support the work of those in exile – including Rahima and the Uyghur community school – through donations if possible.
“I want people to know that this is not a story that we have just come up with, this is reality. It sounds like a story, but it is real.”
Whilst Hemragul carries pain, she also carries hope. When she first came to London, she went to a protest outside the Chinese Embassy which was attended only by herself, Rahima and one other person. She left feeling hopeless, weak and invisible – the one-hour journey home felt like ten. But now, at those same protests, she is one among many – people from different communities and backgrounds all turn up to demand justice for the Uyghurs. She doesn’t know if these protests make a difference to the Chinese government, but they make a huge difference to her.
* Whilst SUG usually uses ‘Uyghur region,’ here we have used ‘East Turkistan’ to reflect Hemragul’s preferred language.