TW: Violence themes, genocide, prison culture
Subihi Setiwaldi does not mince words when describing the reality facing Uyghurs in her homeland of East Turkistan. “It’s called a genocide. The U.S. called it genocide, Canada called it genocide, Dutch parliament - the global community is recognizing it more and more as a genocide.”
And she would be right. At this very moment, more than 20 million Uyghur people are under constant threat by the Chinese Communist Party in what can only be described as an ethnic genocide. Human rights groups have been sounding the alarms for years; that China has taken extreme measures to eradicate this small group in the North Western territory of the country. Measures like detaining more than a million Uyghurs over the past few years in “re-education camps,” forced labour and forced sterilization, all in secrecy and with little protest from the global community until recently. Life for Uyghur citizens is unbearable, with constant surveillance, coercion and with no relief in sight.
It was because of these unbearable living conditions that Subihi’s parents moved away from their homeland and family, to the state of Oklahoma, where she was born. Now, twenty years old and a student at George Mason, Subihi calls me from her home in Virginia, where she and her family moved four years ago. It was through their new Uyghur community in Virginia, and some conversations with her siblings at home, that Subihi really began to understand why she couldn’t contact some of her relatives back home. “My parents would remind us, but they didn’t really talk about it much. And they don’t really like talking about what they had experienced back home because they did face a lot of trauma. I didn’t really understand the entire concept of it until High School. And even then, there wasn’t a lot of media coverage on it either, so it wasn’t like I could just search it up and understand.”
But since her high school days, Subihi has been a proud advocate for the end of the Uyghur genocide, working with groups like Amnesty International, proving education to her peers at VCU, and lobbying politicians and representatives in Washington DC. “I’m really proud to say we met with Ilhan Omar,” Subihi tells me with a smile. “That was really cool.”
With so little media coverage on the topic, I asked Subihi, what are some of the points you would share with someone who has little to no knowledge on this ethnic genocide?
“Oh, that’s tricky because you want to not shock them or overwhelm them, but it is an overwhelming topic. So, might as well get to the point,” she says to me. “But the first thing I would tell them is about who we are. A misconception is that a lot of people think just because China occupied us, that means we’re Chinese. We’re not Chinese. We are our own separate group, we have our own land.” She makes clear that the Uyghur people are both Muslim and Non-Muslim. “We’re not just being persecuted for our religious identity, but we’re also being persecuted for our cultural identity. It’s an attack on our identity as a whole.”
When I asked her how it feels to see such a personal issue play out in the news, Subihi got emotional. “It’s really complicated, especially since I wasn’t really exposed to my culture. I wasn’t really exposed to my identity and I was born in America. So I didn’t get to talk to my relatives a lot. I’ve only been to my homeland once, almost seven years ago, so I don't have many vivid memories of that. And back then, I was still young, I wasn’t very aware of what was going on. I have some regrets. I wish I did more than just play around, I wish I talked to my relatives more.”
Many of her relatives are currently in one of the “re-education camps” set up by the Chinese government. She has not been able to get in touch with them.“It’s been years,” She said. “For example, my mom hasn’t talked to her parents in years now. And my dad, he lost all contact with them last year. And it’s hard to contact them because the Chinese government has them under such high tech surveillance and they don’t want any word getting out about what’s going on. So if we reach out to them, that would be putting them at risk, so they don’t reach out to us...so I haven’t talked to them in a year.”
Here, Subihi gets a little choked up. “At this point, it's just like you feel, you feel stuck. Like I just honestly, I feel stuck.”
“I feel like my faith helps a lot,” She tells me. “Especially since the Chinese government is attacking faith as well. They’re not letting women wear the hijab. They’re even cutting the beards off men. So I’m just extremely grateful, and I appreciate the fact that I get to express my Muslim identity in the U.S. It makes me cling to my hijab even more. Especially with Ramadan coming, they can’t even practice then. Sometimes they have to pray in secret. So that just made me cling to my faith even harder. It made me realize how important, like important it is for me to have Islam. And I'm extremely grateful that I'm born a Muslim and I'm still Muslim.”
Thank you to Subihi for her vulnerability and sharing her experiences and to Sumayya for writing this important article. 100% of proceeds from the Uyghur Blue scarf that Subihi wears in these photos will go to the Uyghur Foundation to help Uyghur orphan refugees in Turkey. If you would like to learn more about the Uyghur cause please follow @freeuyghurnow.