What can you tell us about the Uighur community?
The Uighurs have a very rich culture that is entirely different from Chinese culture. We are moderate Muslims and Islam does influence our culture, but minimally. We have our own traditional customs when it comes to weddings, we have our own music, our own dances, our own clothing, and even our own food. We have our own language which in no way resembles the Chinese language.
The rest of the world is under the misconception that there are no Muslims in China, but this is thanks to Chinese propaganda and their repressive measures. We are not allowed to practice our religion. During Ramadan at times, some Uighurs are forced to eat food to break the fast before time is due. Our culture is also being slowly destroyed. Education is taught in Chinese only now, and Uighurs are limited in the education system as well as in work with such methods. Cultural gatherings are also prohibited and those who defy this are imprisoned.
What I want young people or anyone else to know is that the Chinese government means to wipe us out entirely, culture and language included, as if we were never to exist. Many people have heard of Tibet, but very few have heard of the Uighurs, I need for the younger generation to understand that young people just like themselves are being deprived or their rights and are being massacred by a ruthless government.
What do you remember about living in Urumqi?
I remember very poor children who had nothing to eat. I remember that some schools were segregated -- some even had a fence inside the school separating the Uighurs from the Han Chinese. I remember going to a school set up for poor Uighur children that might not have been able to receive education otherwise. The school was established by my mother.
Why did your family come to the U.S.?
My father had spent a decade in prison as a political prisoner before he had met my mother. He was imprisoned for his political activism which he continued with my mother after their marriage. Years after their marriage my mother got word that he may be imprisoned again and that the Chinese government was beginning to worry about the family's political activities. So she decided to send my father and our family to the States first and follow after. The entire affair was not the easiest since the government would not be too fond of letting us out of the country but my mother got it done.
At the time, I had no idea why we had to leave. I understood that we would be seeing our father again very soon but I had a hard time understanding why our mother couldn't come with us. I just assumed that everything would be alright and that my mother would come with us. As soon as we got on the plane, realization set in and I began to cry. I finally understood that my mother was not coming and that I was not going to see her for a while. After that, it was about seven years before I saw or spoke to her again.
What was it like growing up in the U.S.?
We initially moved to Shawnee, Oklahoma and lived there for six years before moving to northern Virginia. It was a very small town in the South with barely any Uighurs at all. So I grew up going to an American school, with American friends. The adjustment to this new culture for me was not very difficult since I was so young at the time. I was easily accepted and had great friends. My older siblings had a harder time, however.
As great as my friends were, I felt that I could never truly fit in. Something was always missing, a part of me wished that I could've grown up back in my homeland among Uighurs. The life I was living seemed secondary to a life that I could've had. There was this constant emptiness.
But on top of all of this, I was also separated from half my family, including my mother. My siblings and I grew closer than ever, since each other were all we had. When we moved to northern Virginia six years later, it was shocking to me. There was such a large Uighur community here, who constantly kept in touch, had special events. It was all so intoxicating, but I devoured it all. I was given an immense treat after years of living far from anything Uighur.
You are one of 11 children. Where were they and where are they now?
After my mother was released into the U.S. and continued her struggle, the Chinese government imprisoned two of my brothers back home on false charges, in the hopes of stopping my mother's political activities. The rest of my family back home at that time were either under house arrest or were watched very closely. My two brothers were sentenced to seven and nine years in prison and are currently there now. The rest of my family is in other cities due to the recent protests in Urumqi.
Why do you think your mother [political activist Rebiya Kadeer] has become such a powerful voice in the Uighur community?
My mother was a well known figure as a successful businesswoman even before she was known as the voice of the Uighurs. People adored and respected her for her achievement in becoming one of the most successful businesswomen in China when all she had to start with was washing people's clothing. I saw this respect everyday as a child with all the people my mother met with. I believe she could've just as easily continued in such a way and perhaps today we would all be vacationing on some island. But she did not. She used all her resources -- money, connections, etc. -- to fight for her people. She obtained a government position just to present the sufferings of the Uighur people in front of those that had the power to help but who did not.
She essentially dedicated her life to the Uighur cause and I believe that Uighurs everywhere understand what she has lost and what she has gone through -- like the separation of family and imprisonment -- and the fact that she still has not given up in addition to her being a public figure, allows her to be the voice of the Uighurs.
Now that you are a college student, how are you continuing to work for your mother's cause?
My parents are the epitome of Uighur patriotism, to me.
For me, my entire life is devoted to this cause and until I either die or my people are free, I will not stop. To wish for such a goal in my lifetime would be asking for a miracle, but I continue to hope.
I essentially have two separate lives, one as an Uighur woman and one as an American woman. The two do not often clash but my being Uighur will always come first.
I feel that my two separate lives have come closer, become more unified at Georgetown [University]. It's a whole different environment than the schools I have attended before. People I have met there don't ask me what "Uighur" is as often as elsewhere. Everyone is so aware of what is going on and many are sympathetic to my cause. Most of my friends would have been happy to join in our protests were they here. One actually did come to the protest.
Again, even what I do at school, or even going to school at all, everything really is geared towards this struggle for freedom. My future will be spent in continuing this struggle. My schooling, my job, my future is all for my country and only when we are free will I be able to actually focus on what I want for myself. Until then, I live, eat and breath for my country and for my family.