‘The Price of My Studies Abroad Was Very High’: Uyghur Former Al Azhar University

Nurehmet Burhan in Belgium, March 2020.  Nurehmet Burhan

Nurehmet Burhan, who was born and raised in Korla (in Chinese, Kuerle), a county-level city in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region’s (XUAR) Bayin’gholin Mongol (Bayinguoleng Menggu) Autonomous Prefecture, is one of millions of Uyghur youths who did not test into China’s university system. With the help of his father Burhan Kerimtulla, the imam of the mosque in his home village of Tekche, and more than a year and a half of working to secure a passport from government officials, Burhan left Xinjiang in 2014 to pursue Islamic studies at the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt.

In 2016, Burhan began to hear disturbing news about the deteriorating political situation in the XUAR from his father, who he said urged him to return home, likely at the behest of local authorities. However, after hearing news about students who had disappeared after arriving at the airport in the XUAR capital Urumqi and believing that his own life would be in danger were he to return, Burhan decided not to go back. Beginning in early July 2017, more than 200 Uyghurs, many of them religious students at Al-Azhar, were detained in Egypt after being rounded up in restaurants or at their homes, with others seized at airports as they tried to flee to safer countries. The detentions are believed to have taken place on the orders of Beijing. Burhan spent two months in detention but was able to later make his way to Turkey and on to Belgium, where he has lived since.

It has been more than three years since Burhan lost contact with his father, who he thinks was either imprisoned or sent to one of the XUAR’s vast network of internment camps, where authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities since April 2017. He also has a wife and young son back in the XUAR whom he has not heard from in years. He has been unable to obtain information about his family members from either friends back home or authorities in the region. Burhan recently spoke with RFA’s Uyghur Service about how he often questions whether he made the right decision not to return home, although he acknowledged that he likely would have ended up in some form of detention alongside his father.

They were always calling my dad to the big National Security office in Korla, asking him questions like, “When is your son coming back? He must come back.” They put a lot of pressure on him. All of the students who went back [from Egypt] in 2017 disappeared at the airport, the Urumqi airport.

If it just affected me, whatever, but if my parents were to learn that I was suffering in a camp or in prison, that I was going to be locked up for many years, they would certainly lose consciousness, they might lose their minds. They would be so disturbed they’d become gravely ill. In that way, I would be destroyed, and my parents and relatives would be destroyed as well. So, I decided it would be best to stay [in Egypt], and I didn’t leave.

I followed my dreams and went to Egypt because I wanted to study well and become someone who was capable and useful for my people. But I never imagined that I would have to escape from Egypt and be unable to go back to the homeland, that I’d be separated from my wife and child.

No news for years

Sometimes I think about this: my father is now in his 50s. Now, in his older age, he’s been experiencing this Chinese oppression. There’s been no news about him for the past three years. Is he alive? Is he dead? If he’s alive, what are his days like? What is there for him to do? I’m wandering around abroad, alone, unable to go back. What can he do? I go about my days with this worry, this unease.

My father and I lost contact with each other in May 2017. Several months after we lost contact, I heard from other people that my father had been taken into a camp, that he’d been taken in for a year of “reeducation.” But I don’t have any information other than this.

I find myself not wanting to do any work, feeling depressed. My father and mother, my relatives: they’re all [back home]. I’m alone, wondering what’s going to happen to me, feeling depressed. My dad still hasn’t gotten out. I look at that and realize even if I’d gone back home, they would likely have disappeared both me and my father, the two of us.

Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Elise Anderson. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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