‘We’re A People That Are Grieving’: Local Uighurs Have Escaped China, But Still Fear Repression

Newly arrived uniforms for the area’s Uighur Sunday school. Colm Quinn / DCist

MAR 14, 9:51 AM

Murat Ataman last heard from his mother on Mother’s Day 2017.

“I called her, I said ‘Happy Mother’s Day.’ She said ‘thanks.’ Then she said she would call me back. And that’s the last time we spoke,” Ataman says.

Their final communication came over the app WeChat minutes later. Ataman’s mother texted him, told him she was deleting him from her contact list, and advised him to delete the app. Ataman, a dutiful son, did as he was told. He has no idea about her current whereabouts.

Ataman, a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security, is an ethnic Uighur and a native of the Xinjiang Province in China. He has been a U.S. citizen since 2014, but still feels the impact of the Chinese government’s repression of his people.

China’s treatment of the Uighurs in the country’s west has made headlines around the world in recent months as stories have trickled out about “re-education camps,” an Orwellian surveillance state, and unremitting cultural repression.

Even those who have escaped the country, like Ataman, are affected by the pressure the Chinese government puts on their compatriots. In addition to being cut off from contact with his mother, Ataman recently learned that his brother has been in a re-education camp since last June.

Ataman is one of around 1,500 Uighurs who live in the Washington region, according to an estimate from the D.C.-based Uighur American Association, with the majority living in Fairfax County. It’s the largest Uighur community in the United States.

Most Uighurs came to the area in the 1980s, with longtime residents pointing to the greater ease of asylum processing by being closer to the capital as well as the proximity to Radio Free Asia, a source of employment.

Ataman found his way to Fairfax by way of his wife, a Uighur-American who moved to the area in the 1990s. They had originally met while Ataman was living in the United Kingdom.

He says he feels very safe in Fairfax. The United States is “the only country that can look at China and say ‘stop,’” Ataman says, even though he believes the Uighur community is full of Chinese spies.

Some local Uighurs say the Chinese authorities use intimidation techniques to keep the expatriate community in line. One Uighur who lives in Fairfax recounted a phone call from a Chinese official in Xinjiang demanding he send along his U.S. address, phone number, and copies of his passport. Another says officials requested information about future protests and organizing activity, asking for names of participants while gently reminding him that their family members are safe—for now.

In official statements, the Chinese government maintains that its actions in Xinjiang are in the name of security. “The measures to fight terrorism and religious extremism have never targeted particular ethnic groups or religions like some people in other countries claimed,” Xinjiang’s Uighur Autonomous Region Chairman Shorat Zakir said while talking up increased tourism during a March press conference. The detention centers are not concentration camps, he said, but rather “boarding schools,” where “trainees” can go home on weekends and request leave.

While some Uighurs are eager to use their proximity to the seat of U.S. power to highlight the situation in their homeland, others are happy to live a quiet life in their new country.

Hamid Karim, the owner of Dolan, a Uighur restaurant in Cleveland Park, tries to keep things simple. “For me, it is work then home, work then home,” he says.

Karim, who worked as a doctor before immigrating to the U.S. in 2017, spends the first half of his day studying English at the LADO International Institute before heading to his restaurant. Karim’s brother, Abu, has been in prison on and off in China since 1997, when he was arrested as part of a wider crackdown following large-scale protests. Karim’s quiet life in Virginia is possible only because he could prove he had severed ties with his brother.

But Karim is proud of his heritage. The walls of his restaurant—whose clientele Karim says is “90 percent white Americans”—are draped with Uighur tapestries, traditional clothing, and musical instruments. He says one of his goals is “to help Americans understand Uighur culture.”

Helping Americans understand Uighur culture is not an easy task.

“People call us ‘Chinese Muslims’ but that’s not the case,” says Irade Kashgary, 24, who moved to Fairfax from Xinjiang as a child. Although Uighurs’ Muslim faith is important to them, Kashgary explains that this description is inaccurate, in part because there are already ethnically Chinese Muslims––the Hui people of Northwest China.

Kashgary and her mother run a Uighur Sunday school to help teach children about their culture. She attended a similar school when she was younger. Their school has four classes for different age groups, from toddlers to teenagers, in a space shared by the Uighur Entrepreneurs Network, a group that teaches IT and English skills. The children wear the same school uniforms as students in other Uighur schools around the world.

For Kashgary, the school is a chance for Uighurs to connect with their heritage and build pride in their culture. “Growing up, having the opportunity to be able to speak my own tongue was a huge, huge thing for me,” she says. “And I think that it could really impact a lot of these kids as well.”

In Chantilly, Virginia, Bahram Sintash is also trying to build a strong sense of Uighur identity—through fitness. His company, Uyghur Muscle, promotes exercise and nutrition. Sintash says that the Chinese government has banned Uighurs from keeping personal fitness equipment in their homes.

“Our religion has been prohibited so what do we have? Exercise,” he says. “Maybe that will be the next religion.”

Sintash’s father, Qurban Mamut, was a prominent Uighur intellectual and the editor of the Xinjiang Cultural Journal. He is now in a re-education camp. Sintash maintains contact with home through superficial communications with family still in Xinjiang. In his conversations with relatives back home, his father remains “in the hospital.” Sintash uses Twitter to advocate for his father and other imprisoned Uighurs.

The question of what is going on back home always comes up when Uighurs get together. “The stress among the community is insane,” Kashgary says.

One woman whose children attend the Sunday school, who wanted to remain anonymous, says that the situation in Xinjiang is “the number one topic of conversation, always,” but that the weekly gatherings with the other parents provide a kind of release. The woman, who works for a federal agency, says that as news from Xinjiang has entered the mainstream, her bosses have shown sympathy. “But it’s nice to come here because you don’t have to constantly explain yourself. People know what you’re going through because they are too,” she says.

The community also bonds over social activities, including meals at the area’s three Uighur restaurants, and through support for the Uyghur United Football Club. The soccer team, which was founded in Fairfax in 2005, has won the Uyghur American soccer tournament for the past four years.

Uighurs also regularly take part in protests and demonstrations, often obscuring their faces with masks or sunglasses so photos won’t get their families at home in further trouble.

The community will soon celebrate the spring festival Nowruz, one of the biggest holidays in the Uighur year. The celebration usually includes a night of poetry and comedy along with singing and dancing. Irade Kashgary is on the organizing committee, and says that the ongoing oppression of her people in Xinjiang has darkened any celebratory mood: this year the dancing will be scaled back. Traditional songs will focus on themes of mourning and feature songs written by Uighur artists currently in the Xinjiang camps.

“We’re a people that are grieving right now,” Kashgary says. “We’re sad, we’re heartbroken.”