What We Can Learn From Courageous Uyghur Activists in Canada: a Dispatch From NCCM Advocacy Day

Uyghur activists from across the country gathered on Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Mehliya’s first trip home was supposed to be about family outings and long-awaited reunions. Born in Alberta, she never set foot in the land of her ancestors until summer 2009, when a plane carried her and some family members into Urumqi, the capital of East Turkestan in China’s Western region. She was just four years old.

It may not have been the land of her birth, but to a young Uyghur girl who longed for connection and belonging, Urumqi felt like home.

“My immediate family is not that big, but I have a large extended family,” Mehliya told me as we stood across from each other in a narrow corridor in Ottawa last Monday, 13 years after her first (and last) trip to East Turkestan.

“We have aunties and uncles we’ve never met. But even though I’ve never met them, they’re still my people, my blood. It’s my ancestors and my heritage and my lineage. That’s the blood I carry in Canada today. To make them proud and continue our legacy, I have to fight for us.”

I struggled to hear Mehliya over laughter and chatter bursting from the room beside us. We met for the first time that day in the same unassuming office building, not far from Parliament Hill where she and other Uyghur advocates spent much of the day.

Joined by dozens of Muslim community leaders from across the country, they sat down with lawmakers across all parties to advocate against Uyghur forced labour. Organized by the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM), the day allowed delegates to speak with one voice: to ban imports tainted by Uyghur forced labour.

Many were tired from hours of walking and meetings as I tried to interview them throughout the day. Mehliya was resting in an office chair before I dragged her into the hallway for a chat.

Mehliya, 17, hours after her last meeting during NCCM Advocacy Day

From nightmare to now

Not long after Mehliya touched down in Urumqi all those years ago, it was clear that the idyllic holiday her family had in mind was not going to happen. Tensions in the city boiled over on July 5th as Chinese paramilitary police descended onto the city streets to quell Uyghur protestors. Local residents were calling for an investigation into an incident that left two fellow Uyghurs dead in Southern China, allegedly at the hands of a few Han Chinese, the country’s dominant ethnic group.

The ensuing violence claimed over 190 lives, including many Uyghurs, the vast majority of whom are Muslim. But human rights organizations warn that the real casualty count is likely much higher. Mehliya’s overdue homecoming turned into a bloody nightmare. Her voice quaked as she recounted that day.

“It was a very peaceful protest, I remember seeing it at that young age,” she said. “It was insane. It was so frightening. It’s something that truly traumatically affects me today.

I was really young. I was told not to go out onto the streets. It was a day I was supposed to go to the park with my cousins, but my grandparents said no. But I was stupid and stubborn at the age of like three or four, so I ran down the stairs and I opened the door. I saw an auntie on the ground screaming and crying. She was being trampled on. And in the background there were tanks.”

That summer day marked a turning point in the Chinese Communist Party’s treatment of millions of Uyghurs in East Turkestan, which Beijing calls “Xinjiang” — a term the Uyghur people reject as colonial and externally imposed. Years later, at least a million Uyghurs languish over 1,000 internment camps set up in the region by the CCP.

Copious amounts of documentation, analysis, and leaked material reveal widespread human rights abuses in these camps, including sexual abuse, beatings, forced sterilization, forced labour, etc. Beijing denies this reality and justifies the camps as a counter-terrorism measure to “re-educate” Uyghurs in patriotism and love of country.

Captured Uyghurs, along with other ethnic minority groups like Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz, are also forced to work on products like clothes and foods while interned. Under the pretext of “vocational training,” these interned individuals slave over items that get exported across the world as normal commercial goods. Canada, along with many other countries, import these tainted items on a regular basis.

Advocacy as Reconnection

The NCCM Advocacy Day attended by many Uyghur advocates focused on changing this abusive reality. Delegates pushed lawmakers to pass amended legislation that will force companies to prove that the products they want to import have not been tainted by Uyghur forced labour. Otherwise, they have to find another country to take their goods.

Meeting after meeting, delegates repeatedly asked for Bill S-211 to be passed after being amended by some language from Bill S-204. That would stop Canada from being complicit in the genocidal circumstances suffered by those in East Turkestan. It was a monotonous yet necessary process. The community tried to speak with one voice.

But for many Uyghur activists, the meetings, walks, and security procedures amount to much more than a way to air some grievances. The ability to live and advocate under freer conditions in the West comes with a price, the price of being uprooted.

Speaking aloud the abuses suffered by their families, friends, and people in East Turkestan thus becomes a way to reconnect (even for a moment).

“I have many family members in concentration camps, and I haven’t been able to talk to any of my family members in East Turkestan for many, many years,” Mehliya stressed.

“I’ve always longed to build a connection with my family, to build a connection with my culture, which has been extremely hard. I have no contact and no idea what’s going on back home. Just seeing leaked reports, leaked police files, and things like that. And it’s very difficult to be able to do this work and see all the gruesome signs, see all the horrific things, the things that honestly desensitize us to suffering sometimes.”

Acting against collective punishment, abuse, and injustice in this case becomes an attempt to feel tethered to a world and a people who share roots. This is not an abstraction. It is not numbers to be memorized or bills that need to be passed. It is an undying need to feel collectively rooted with people who have had their world upended by powerful state-backed forces. Those afflicted with this need will travel thousands of miles to try and fulfil it. Even for a weekend.

“Every single Uyghur has been affected”

Kabir flew over 2,700 miles into Ottawa by himself to participate in Advocacy Day. A substitute teacher living in Vancouver, his past shows the same signs of rootlessness that so many Uyghurs have learned to bear and accept.

“I was born in Kazakhstan,” he said, “but I also lived in Afghanistan before coming to Canada as a refugee. I feel 100% Uyghur and 100% Afghan.”

Kabir, 24, hours after his last meeting during NCCM Advocacy Day

Kabir has dozens of relatives in East Turkestan that he has mostly lost touch with since around 2017, when CCP officials stepped up their arrests of Uyghurs in the area. Many ended up in internment camps. Kabir found out recently that a cousin of his is now in prison for life after viewing a video that the Chinese officials deem “seditious.”

“It affects not only me, my family, most of my people. I would say every single Uyghur has been affected to a very significant degree, some more than others,” he said.

Those who want a better life therefore have to flee. And those who flee early have a better chance of building a new life despite being severed from what they know.

“They chose to leave. You have to leave. There’s no choice left but to leave. So they ran. They couldn’t live there anymore. They were fed up with it. But you don’t really have a place you can call a home. It’s funny. I’m Canadian, I love it. I’m honoured to be here.

But at the end of the day, some people, even though they’re Canadian, maybe Uzbek, you know, they can still go back home, visit. They can go back home to Kazakhstan or wherever. I can’t do that. For me, as soon as I land on Chinese soil, you know, I would just get scooped up, most likely.”

This is the reality for too many Uyghurs whose lives are lived in Canada or other parts of the West, but whose memories are rooted in East Turkestan.

“A totally different reality”

Zupaer left Urumqi with his family in the late ’90s. They ended up in Berlin for some years, then landed in Toronto for a while. Career academics, his parents were happy to go wherever there was work. And so they ended up packing their bags again, this time for Abu Dhabi, before finally settling for the suburbs of Montreal. Zupaer’s memories of East Turkestan are understandably hazy.

“I was too young to realize what I was seeing, but everything felt very interesting, very mixed,” he recalled. “There was a sense of home, but also it felt weird because even then, there were a lot of Chinese people moving into the area living alongside Uyghurs. There were a lot of markets, I got food poisoning from street food, which was typical. My relatives had their own properties with large gardens.”

Like Mehliya and Kabir, Zupaer is caught in the gray area between freedom and rootlessness. Having eventually found his footing in Canada, he is pulled by memories of his people, as well as their aspirations.

“You just live in a totally different reality from everyone else,” he said. “It’s not Western, but also not exactly the same as your relatives, many of whom you don’t even know you had because they live so far away.”

Under such circumstances, activism and life begin to resemble each other. The forces that erect internment camps are the same ones that tear families apart, forcing some to traverse the globe without community, connection, or comfort.

Overcoming these injustices becomes more than politics. It means restoring each other’s humanity, along with one’s own.

Uyghur activists gathered outside of Parliament on Advocacy Day to raise awareness

About halfway through Monday’s meetings, dozens of Uyghur activists gathered, in addition to those who joined NCCM for the day, onto Parliament Hill for a rally. About 100 or so people came out, including lawmakers like Garnett Genuis and Sameer Zuberi. Many who showed were older Uyghur activists who spoke little English when they landed in Canada years ago.

“Now we have a new generation of first- or second-generation Uyghur Canadians,” said Kabir, who’s now 24. “And we grew up speaking English. We can articulate our concerns, our hopes. So for me, I just felt like the aunties who showed up to the protests were cheering us on as we went to each meeting to do what we can for our people.”

Generations connected in the face of enforced separation. What was partially erased and torn became whole again, if only momentarily. It became clear that the site of activism was just one day in a longer dream: to restore one’s place among an interrupted people, to affirm one’s humanity over and over again.

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National Council of Canadian Muslims

The National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) is an independent, non-partisan and non-profit organization that protects Canadian human rights.