The last time Sidiq visited relatives in rural Xinjiang, China, in 2016, his grandmother pulled him aside with a warning. “Never come back here,” she said, making him swear. “Even if I’m sick, even if anything happens to us, never come back.”
The Boston-area boy, then 13, didn’t need to ask why.
China’s brutal crackdown against the Uyghur people, a mostly Muslim Turkic minority in the contested Xinjiang region, had yet to grab international headlines; it would be years before any American lawmaker would use the word “genocide” and before the controversy would cast a shadow over China hosting the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
But even then, men from Sidiq’s community in northwestern China had begun to disappear. The Uyghur language was vanishing from the streets. And Sidiq began to realize this erasure was occurring in his own life, too. Though in Boston his Uyghur language skills were considered strong, he could barely keep up with his friends in Xinjiang.
Determined to preserve Uyghur culture, Sidiq set aside his college plans to launch the nonprofit Boston Uyghur School in 2019, offering language, religion, and cultural classes for Uyghur children and young adults across New England.
Against the backdrop of a global superpower’s intensifying repression of the Uyghur people, Sidiq, now 19, is part of a small but growing community fighting to preserve its heritage from complete erasure.
An estimated 200 Uyghurs live in the Greater Boston area today, according to the Boston Uyghur Association, working urgently to strengthen community bonds, which they see as integral to preserving their culture and protecting their people.
“The same Uyghur identity that was fading from within me was also fading from the homeland under Chinese pressure,” said Sidiq, a name he created to use publicly to protect relatives in Xinjiang, where authorities are known to target families of those who speak out.
Sidiq’s uncle and cousin are among more than a million Uyghurs detained in China’s shadowy network of detention camps, he said, where human rights groups report many face torture, sexual violence, and forced labor.
“It’s a long-term strategic plan,” explained Sidiq’s father, who serves as the Boston school’s dean. “It may not have immediate results in a political sense, but it will help the Uyghur people to at least maintain their culture.”
Sidiq, who moved to the United States when he was 5, helps manage the school along with a board and several paid instructors. Launched out of a mosque in Wayland and now online due to the pandemic, the school is now among the largest Uyghur American organizations, with over 30 students currently enrolled and more attending events.
“In this genocide, we feel completely helpless,” Sidiq said. Watching the horror play out in his homeland, he feels a sense of survivor’s guilt. It drives him to keep busy and keep pushing on behalf of relatives who cannot speak for themselves.
For decades, an estimated 11 million Uyghurs living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region — which many Uyghurs call East Turkestan — have struggled under the Chinese government. As early as 2014, experts believe, the state began to detain Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in mass detention camps.
Authorities insist these are vocational training centers, part of a regional “deradicalization” effort. But many have been charged with “inciting extremism” over anything from attending the mosque to publishing Uyghur-language books. Thousands of mosques have been razed, Uyghur birthrates have plummeted, and a high-tech surveillance state polices every facet of residents’ lives.
“What the Chinese government is trying to do is halt the transmission of Uyghur culture across generations,” said Peter Irwin, with the Washington, D.C.- based Uyghur Human Rights Project.
Efforts to speak out and preserve traditions have gained momentum in Massachusetts in recent years, as first-generation American Uyghurs like Sidiq come of age and more immigrants arrive.
Perhaps the most prominent local Uyghur institution is Silk Road Uyghur Cuisine in Cambridge, a favorite for local Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan; in a grim parallel, the restaurant’s owner has said fasting during Ramadan landed her own father a 20-year prison sentence in Xinjiang.
Other local Uyghurs are also making their mark. Maya Mitalipova, a stem cell researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, founded the Boston Uyghur Association last year, which organizes get-togethers, an annual East Turkestan flag-raising at Boston City Hall, and lobbying for Uyghur rights legislation, including policies to speed up the processing of local Uyghurs’ asylum claims.
On weekends, Mitalipova and a group of activists protest outside the offices of companies linked to business dealings in Xinjiang.
“For a culture to revive, it needs community,” said Kaiser Mejit, a health care professional who was among the earliest Uyghurs to move to the area.
When Mejit arrived from Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, on a scholarship to Northeastern University in 1997, he was the only Uyghur he knew of in the Boston area.
His arrival marked the beginning of a migration of Uyghur students and professionals to the area. Some of their parents, too, were forced into exile when they came to visit their children and were unable to return home safely.
‘Our younger generation shouldn’t forget our roots.’
Kaiser Mejit, among the earliest Uyghurs to move to Boston
As families began settling down, Mejit and many other parents sought to ensure their children retained a strong sense of their Uyghur identity.
“Our younger generation shouldn’t forget our roots,” Mejit said. “So we speak Uyghur at home, we joke in Uyghur at home, we take our son to Uyghur events. That’s the only way to keep our culture alive.”
Even as Boston Uyghurs try to move forward with their lives in the United States, many remain haunted by guilt, trauma, and the realization of their powerlessness in the face of a genocide targeting their family members.
Mejit’s niece Shayida Ali, a software engineer who has lived in Braintree since 2019, said she tries not to cry too much, for her newborn’s sake. But when she thinks of her parents back in Xinjiang, survivor’s guilt rears its head.
“Sometimes I just want to disappear,” Ali said. “I want to be gone. It’s so hard to continue, knowing my family is in this situation, that we’re all separated, and myself living here in a free country in good condition.”
Ali’s recently learned her father, Elijan Mamut — who disappeared four years ago from his home in Kashgar — is detained in China’s Shufu internment camp.
“There’s no written verdict, nothing about why he is there, when he will be released,” Ali said. “I can only look at the map and know [where he is], and that’s even more painful.”
To date, more than 80 percent of the men on her mother’s side of the family have been detained, Ali said. But she never considers going back to find them.
“We know how powerless we are,” she said. “If we stay outside of China, we can at least find a way to do something.”
Instead of giving my father a big hug on this #FathersDay, I am writing to him on my notes to him, hoping maybe he can feel it or one day he could get a chance to read it.— Shayida Ali (@sydaaaAli) June 20, 2021
Every father deserves a hug from the kids he raised, but when can we hug our father?! pic.twitter.com/VIHhMTCjH5
Ali is outspoken about her father’s case. She holds up photos of him at rallies. She calls out the Chinese government on social media. On Father’s Day, she tweeted an black-and-white image of herself with her father’s photo.
“Instead of giving my father a big hug on this #FathersDay, I am writing to him ... hoping maybe he can feel it or one day he could get a chance to read it,” she posted.
Ali’s other project is keeping Uyghur culture alive in her own household, hoping that her child can learn her mother language and her family’s history in a way that people in Xinjiang can’t today. She hopes Sidiq’s school is there for her daughter when it’s time.
“We have to teach our next generation our language, culture, history, so that it won’t die,” she said. “This is the only chance that we can save it and not let history repeat itself.”