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Exporting persecution: Uyghur diaspora haunted by anxiety, guilt as family held in Chinese camps

Khadija Abdulaziz, 10, is photographed in her home in Mississauga, Ont., on Aug. 10, 2018.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Sometimes, at the Vista Heights Public School in Mississauga, when the teacher gathers students around for a community circle, Khadija Abdulaziz talks about her relatives in China, the dozens of people who have disappeared.

“I told them about the concentration camps and the thing that my grandma died,” said Khadija, who is 10. Those camps are what the Chinese call political re-education centres. They are internment facilities where Chinese authorities have placed large numbers of Muslims as part of a campaign to counter what Beijing deems religious radicalism in the country’s far-western Xinjiang region.

It is weighty material for an Ontario primary school. But Khadija talks about it in hopes that “Canadians will understand us, and they might help us.” She talks, too, because what’s happening 10,000 kilometres away in China has cast a pall over her home in Canada, where she and her family, once prosperous textile traders in China, have been unable to escape what is happening in Xinjiang, even as they have sought safety for themselves as refugees.

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In the past year, more than 50 people in Khadija’s extended family have vanished. Her mother and father believe the disappeared have been placed into indoctrination camps, where, according to the accounts of others who have been released, detainees undergo forcible Chinese-language instruction, skills training and political instruction – which includes praising the Communist Party and declaring religious belief stupid.

Khadija Abdulaziz is photographed with her mother, Adalet Rahim, in her home in Mississauga, Ont., on Aug. 10, 2018.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Although China has not formally acknowledged its re-education campaign, satellite imagery and online government-procurement documents have confirmed an extensive effort that has incarcerated hundreds of thousands in Xinjiang, locking many behind high walls and barbed wire.

The campaign has also reached far beyond China, to the homes of a Uyghur diaspora made up of hundreds of thousands of immigrants and refugees around the world. Many of them are now struggling to cope with what is taking place in China, where the Uyghurs are a largely Muslim minority group that the Chinese government has accused of committing acts of terror and of harbouring extremism.

What’s happening in Xinjiang is serious enough that it should merit a broader re-examination of relations between Western democracies and China, says James Leibold, a scholar at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, who studies ethnic polices and conflict in China.

“It really casts the party state in the light of darkness that I think it deserves,” he says. “We need to start seeing China as a global competitor that espouses a very different set of values than those that we hold dear in the liberal West, and we need to give up on this fantasy of engagement.”

China has produced no official statistics on a re-education program it has sought to keep from public view, but scholars have estimated that at least hundreds of thousands of people have been placed in internment.

Among them are Uyghurs who have previously travelled abroad or even communicated with people elsewhere. Those with overseas connections, scholars say, have been specifically targeted for indoctrination.

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As a result, those in Xinjiang – which Uyghurs call East Turkestan – have cut communication with siblings and even children outside China, deleting them from messaging apps and disavowing family ties.

Abdulaziz Sattar describes being detained and tortured by police in China as a teenager. Sattar now lives in Mississauga.

That has left those in the Uyghur diaspora haunted by anxiety and guilt. In neighbouring Kazakhstan, worries about China indoctrinating large numbers of ethnic Kazakhs have prompted relatives of people in internment camps to beg the United Nations for help. Elsewhere, including in Canada, Uyghurs have been experiencing nightmares and thoughts of suicide. Some have been placed on antidepressants.

”If Uyghurs inside the camps can be seen as direct victims,” then “the Uyghurs in the diaspora are indirect victims of these very policies,” says Mamtimin Ala, a Uyghur scholar and activist in Sydney, who has written a book on what he calls China’s long-standing efforts to “re-engineer the psyche” of the Uyghur people.

“Almost all Uyghurs have at least one family member being detained inside the camps,” he says, and the ruptured ties with those in Xinjiang have contributed to a loss of belonging and identity.

In March, Nurgul Sawut, a clinical social worker in Canberra, conducted a Facebook survey of Uyghurs around the world. Roughly 870 people responded from 18 countries. Ms. Sawut was startled by the results; almost a quarter regularly experienced suicidal thoughts. More than a third showed signs of clinical depression. Nearly half reported difficulty concentrating. A small percentage described being in a state of pervasive numbness.

The survey wasn’t scientific, but it made clear that “the mental health of our wider community, in the diaspora, is actually in crisis,” says Ms. Sawut, who is herself Uyghur.

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At least 12 of Ms. Sawut’s own family members have disappeared since the beginning of 2018. She believes they are in indoctrination camps.

Part of the strain for overseas Uyghurs lies in knowing that their presence abroad is likely one reason relatives have been detained in Xinjiang. “So, it’s quite a huge guilt to carry,” Ms. Sawut says. She has organized online lectures to discuss mental health. People have reached out to her in tears, saying, “I need help.” Serious problems have emerged – self-harm and paranoia among them.

“Some cases have even developed to schizophrenia,” she says.

The burden is augmented by the magnitude of the number of people being interned: Ms. Sawut knows one couple in Australia who count 54 relatives and close friends among those who have disappeared, presumably to internment camps.More than 30 family members of Rebiya Kadeer, an activist and former president of the World Uyghur Congress, have either vanished or been detained. More than 20 relatives of Gulchehra Hoja, a broadcaster with the Uyghur service of Radio Free Asia, have gone missing.

A picture of Abdulaziz Sattar's mother, Adelet Teyip.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Some Uyghurs have been able to see the effects of indoctrination from afar.

In Mississauga, one Uyghur man said that two of his nieces, one of them only 15, were “abducted” for 15 days of indoctrination in March before being allowed back to regular school studies. He showed The Globe and Mail some of his niece’s subsequent posts to WeChat, the Facebook-like social-media service. They include a video of people singing the Communist Party anthem and a memorial tribute to 97 years of the party’s history.

“Everything they post online is related to Xi or pro-China,” said the man, referring to Chinese President Xi Jinping. According to former detainees, repeatedly pledging fealty to Mr. Xi is a central part of the indoctrination process.

The man, who asked that his name not be published for fear of further consequences for his family, counts 20 relatives in indoctrination centres. His sister was taken from a hospital while she was awaiting brain surgery.

“It’s the 21st century – it’s unbelievable that things like this are happening,” the man said.

But it is the unknown that most plagues many Uyghurs who, cut off from family, must rely on scraps of information they can glean through others.

Adalet Rahim and her husband, Abdulaziz Sattar, pose for a portrait in their home in Mississauga, Ont., on July 26, 2018.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Ayesha Hameed has lived in Canada since 2006; her father died this March. She wasn’t told until April, through intermediaries. “The last time I heard my daddy’s voice was a year ago,” she said in an interview, her voice cracking. She herself came to Canada because, after leaving China for religious studies in Pakistan, she feared what would happen if she returned home. As for her other relatives still in Xinjiang, she says, “I don’t know if they’re inside the prison or outside, alive or not.”

The full extended family of another Uyghur woman in Southwestern Ontario, who asked that her name not be used, is still in China. She was told her sister was “studying,” the term typically used for indoctrination, but hasn’t been able to speak with any relatives since last fall. When she calls, they either don’t answer or hang up.

It has taken a toll. “I cannot concentrate on anything. My mind is off. I cannot sleep,” she says. A doctor prescribed anti-depressants. “I lost a lot of weight because I don’t want to eat any more. Whenever I eat something, I remember back home.”

A Canadian citizen, she called on Ottawa to intervene with China.

“Canada is concerned about reports of widespread detentions of Uyghurs in Xinjiang,” says Global Affairs Canada spokeswoman Krista Humick. Although Ottawa is not aware of any Canadian citizens in indoctrination centres, she said in a statement to The Globe and Mail that “the Canadian Embassy has expressed concern about detentions of family members of Canadians to the Chinese government. Canada has consistently called on China to respect, protect and promote the freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of assembly and association, and freedom of religion or belief of all Chinese citizens, including its Uyghur citizens.”

Chinese officials have denied knowledge of a broader campaign in Xinjiang, and have boasted about the economic advancements Beijing has brought to the region. In a report last year to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, China said that “discrimination against and oppression of any nationality are prohibited.” Xinjiang’s economy doubled in size between 2008 and 2015, and its 2015 rise in disposable income was the largest in the country.

On Friday, however, a vice-chair of the committee, Gay McDougall, accused China of turning Xinjiang into a “no-rights zone,” one “that resembles a massive internment camp.”

Abdulaziz Sattar, a Uyghur who lives in Mississauga, decries Chinese repression of his people, describing their actions as "total ethnic cleansing."

China’s treatment of the Uyghurs has also begun to attract attention in the United States, where it was the subject of a late-July hearing by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China. Commission co-chair Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, called the re-education campaign “the largest jailing of an ethnic and religious minority maybe since the Holocaust, certainly since the apartheid days in South Africa.”

That scale is not an abstraction in Khadija’s house in Mississauga. Her mother, Adalet Rahim, counts a brother and six cousins in indoctrination programs. Her father, Abdulaziz Sattar, says that some 50 of his relatives have been incarcerated – among them bureaucrats, teachers and a medical doctor. Mr. Sattar’s parents are among them.

In 2016, he met up with his mother and father in Turkey. After she returned to China, his mother was detained and interrogated for two days. Her interrogators called Mr. Sattar a “dangerous enemy of the Communist Party of China,” she told her son late that year.

Months later, he heard that his parents had been sent to indoctrination camps. His father, now retired, had worked as a local government functionary, conversant in Chinese. His mother had been a housewife, devoted to her children. Racked by worry about them, Mr. Sattar lost his appetite and suffered from bad dreams.

A picture of Abdulaziz Sattar with his mother, Adelet Teyip, and father, Ibrahim Sattar.

Then, he was told his mother had died in internment. He cried on the spring day he received the news, the first time his wife had seen him in tears.

“He told me that there is nothing more painful than this,” Ms. Rahim says.

Chinese authorities did not return the body of Mr. Sattar’s mother to relatives in Xinjiang. He does not know why she died, whether she was given a religiously suitable burial or even the exact day of her death.

He is left asking what sin she committed.

“China,” he says, “should answer for this.”

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