I was born and raised in Cascadia, but I like to think of myself as a worldly person who keeps tabs on major events occurring around the planet. But January of 2021 was the first time that I heard the word “Uyghur.” While perusing my social media pages, I noticed that my friend Josh posted on Instagram that he would be hosting a Uyghur genocide awareness event for the Pacific Northwest region. I distinctly remember thinking, “Genocide? I’ve never heard of the Uyghurs; this must be breaking news.” I attended my friend’s event and found myself shocked and dismayed by what I learned. The event transformed my life.
I listened to Uyghur Muslims give their testimonies about what was happening to their people. Though this was a cultural group I had never heard of and a religion that I had rarely interacted with, suddenly the Uyghurs were no longer “other” but a people with whom I felt solidarity. I desperately wanted to help. Their stories changed me.
I began to attend other Uyghur awareness events and volunteered my time to organize them. Most importantly, I sought to cultivate relationships with Uyghur friends. Now, a year and a half later, I write as a Uyghur advocate, committed to doing everything I can to support their struggle for justice.
What is happening
For over a decade now, China’s Community Party (CCP) has been assaulting the sovereignty, dignity, and human rights of the Uyghur people. For those who are unfamiliar with the Uyghurs, they are a beautifully unique ethnic group of Muslims living in the Xinjiang province of Northwest China, their ancestral home. The CCP and President Xi have sought to make the Uyghurs disappear by imposing on them a form of nationalist Han Chinese identity that wars against Uyghur identity—despite Han Chinese cultural elements being a historical part of Uyghur ancestry and ethnicity.
In 2016, the oppression of the Uyghur people escalated into genocide. Beginning in 2016, many re-education and forced labor camps were constructed as China began to detain Uyghurs. The province of Xinjiang became a “massive internment camp”¹ meant to contain, suppress, and even destroy Uyghur identity. Speaking the Uyghur language in schools was forbidden, and the practice of their religion was outlawed.
In one of my many interviews with the Uyghur people, I talked to Natasha² who is a Uyghur reporter working for a significant network. With incredible frustration and sadness, Natasha told me that she no longer wishes to share her personal experiences because her family has been missing since 2016 and no one has cared enough to stop China. She expressed frustration that this genocide has been ongoing with little opposition from other nations.
When I asked her why China was targeting her people, she quickly responded, “Existence. Maybe you don’t understand…China decided to erase us, but we try to exist as Uyghur.”
Learning through story
Nevertheless, such stories of loss and erasure must be told—and must be heard—as stories are one of the best mediums for learning. Hearing these stories of genocide will not only produce a more profound understanding for those who listen and read but also inspire a much greater level of empathy.
Here is the story of Kalbinur Gheni, for example. She is desperately searching for her sister who was “disappeared” by the government. She recounts:
“She was detained. When they took her, they said that she would be reeducated for 3 months. But they didn’t tell any other information. But she didn’t come back, even in 3 years. In 3 years, I was disconnected with my family. In that time, they detained my cousin, 3 other cousins, my uncle, and are holding my sister. She was a teacher in public school. The art teacher, a painter. In my hometown, 60% of Uyghur teachers were taken, including my sister. After the detention in concentration camps, 2.5 years later, they gave her a sentence of 17 years just last year. The reason is Chinese government insistently claimed that my sister was praying in 2013 during our father’s funeral. Seven years for praying and another 10 years because she kept a religious book that they claimed would lead to terrorism.”³
Stories like Kalbinur’s are the stories that we must attend to and be changed by.
Propaganda hides the truth
China’s influence is beyond the knowledge of many. The government continues to undermine global awareness of their human rights violations and crimes against humanity as they extend their assault on Uyghur existence. Many Chinese citizens remain utterly ignorant or are in denial of what is happening to the Uyghurs. I have personally experienced the CCP’s propaganda machine, which is very reminiscent of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.
In 2018, I engaged in a study abroad program through Central Washington University to teach high school English in Macau, China. I developed excellent relationships with many students and fellow teachers. One student in particular was extremely bright and kind. He would tell me that he wanted to become a medical doctor, and I encouraged him to follow his dream. I kept in contact with this student over the years and was delighted when he told me that he had enrolled in medical school in China. Last year, however, I received a somber reminder of the effectiveness of the CCP’s propaganda. My former student discovered my Uyghur activism on social media and promptly ridiculed me for “believing the lies of western media.” “A teacher should know better,” he told me. Many more insults followed in what was a fierce defense of his nation.
Though this experience saddened and angered me, I know that it is important to make a distinction between the citizens of China and their government. The people of China simply don’t know what they are not allowed to know.
What is being done
The White House officially declared the Uyghur crisis a genocide in 2020. Since then, many more countries have followed in recognizing the genocide. In terms of legislation, the United States passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act (H.R. 6256) in December of 2021, a year after recognizing the genocide. To this date, H.R. 6256 remains the sole piece of legislation created on behalf of the Uyghurs. The act aims to prevent goods that have been made in Xinjiang using Uyghur slave labor from entering the United States. Given how recently H.R. 6256 was passed, it remains to be seen how effective it will be at screening supply chains from China, especially as COVID-19 continues to disrupt them. Uyghurs celebrated the passing of this act and were happy to see the United States take some action, but far more is needed.
Another small victory is that recently, and for the first time ever, a Uyghur novel has been translated into English. The novel, The Backstreets: A Novel from Xinjiang, details Uyghur life in Xinjiang and is written by Perhat Tursun, who has since disappeared.
What we can do
For some of you, this may be the first time you have ever heard of the Uyghurs, which may also be true of your families, friends, and neighbors. The question as to why this is the case is a complicated one, but quite simply and frankly, the news cycle has a short attention span and a decade-spanning genocide of a Muslim minority does not fit the bill. However, now that we know about this atrocity, here are a few things we can do to help the Uyghurs.
- Educate ourselves and spread awareness: We can help by ensuring everyone around us is aware of what is occurring and taking steps from there. The Seattle Times posted an article on the Uyghur genocide which is a good resource and can be found here: Uyghur torture in Xinjiang | The Seattle Times. Find resources like this and talk about them. Holding conversations in our daily circles can spark entire movements. Additionally, opening chapter groups at universities, community centers, and churches is a great place to start. Grassroots efforts like these are desperately needed to push Uyghur activism forward and to push more government bodies into action.
- Support nonprofits: Uyghur Human Rights Project is a nonprofit run by Uyghurs here in the United States. They are dedicated to supporting the Uyghurs and fighting against the genocide. They post detailed reports, events, and updates on the genocide. If you would like to donate somewhere, I recommend UHRP. They also hold Uyghur awareness events which are often held over Zoom so that anyone can join and learn more about the Uyghurs, the genocide, and movements taking place to help. Campaign for Uyghurs is another great nonprofit I have worked with that also posts relevant information and opportunities to get involved. These two are the places I always check first.
- Use social media to advocate for change: Social media is a powerful tool to reach an unaware audience and tell them what is happening to the Uyghurs. Using our platforms to share Uyghur stories can help bring people together in a shared desire for action. As I mentioned earlier, stories are one of the most powerful ways we learn. As a Uyghur activist myself who lives in Cascadia, I post any local activities or events that are occurring in Cascadia on behalf of the Uyghurs on my Twitter (@DavidBluherIII) and Instagram (coach.blu).
- Make ethical purchasing decisions when possible: Times are tough and making a trip to Walmart to buy cheaper products can save us some money. But if you see the “Made in China” label, there is a decent chance that it was made in a Uyghur forced labor camp. This may change if H.R. 6256 proves effective. The fragrance and fashion company Burberry has been identified as using Uyghur forced labor for their products, and earlier this year Elon Musk opened a Tesla showroom in Xinjiang. Sometimes buying ethically just isn’t possible for various reasons, but making a conscious effort can make a big difference.
- Use your vote: Call upon your senators and congressional representatives to enact further measures to help the Uyghur people. During election season, pay attention to politicians who are speaking about the Uyghurs, those who are not, and those who are denying the acts of genocide that China is committing. Representatives are servants of the people; it is our responsibility to inform them that we care about the Uyghurs. Yell loud and long enough about something and people will eventually pay attention to see what all the fuss is about.
- Build bridges: We need to build alliances between the Christian and Muslim communities so that we can work together to solve this crisis. Peace Catalyst International is a fantastic organization based in Cascadia whose mission is to do exactly that, catalyze peace. They launched the Uyghur Wellness Initiative which aims to deliver spiritual and mental wellness care to Uyghurs by providing a safe space for healing. Together, we can spread awareness and work alongside the Uyghur community. Check with local mosques to see if they are hosting any Uyghur events and go join them in solidarity to the cause.
The Uyghurs are a kind people. The friends I have made are some of the most compassionate people I have ever known. Unfortunately, it can be easy to ignore the other. Our daily lives are busy (as I write this, I currently have three jobs!). We can have short attention spans, as does the news cycle. Due to the complicated political landscape surrounding this genocide, the Uyghurs need the common people to care about them. They need our help in their struggle for existence.
I have hugged a crying mother who was strapped to a torture chair for 48 hours. I have felt their pain and been transformed by it. I am asking you, my brothers and sisters of Cascadia, to join me in this transformation and open your hearts to a people that needs our love.
¹Fallon, Joseph E. “China’s Crime Against Uyghurs Is a Form of Genocide.” Fourth World Journal, 2019.
³Gheni, Kalbinur. “Uyghur Human Rights Project.” International Religious Freedom Summit, Washington D.C., 14 July 2021.
Photo credit: Molly Blackbird