By Ashley Thompson & William Gallo
23 August, 2018

Aygul said she was not really in the "Eid mood."

But that did not stop her from preparing a traditional Uyghur holiday meal Tuesday for family and friends at her home in northern Virginia.

In between serving bowls of laghman noodles and hot tea, Aygul and her guests talked about their families back home in China's far western region of Xinjiang.

"Some days it's even hard to breathe," she says, holding back tears. "Even though it's Eid, we're always sad."

Uyghurs in the United States came together this week to mark the Kurban Eid holiday, also known as Eid-al-Adha. Yet, as several Uyghurs told VOA, it is hard to celebrate while knowing -- or not knowing -- what their family is going through back home.

About 11 million Uyghurs live in Xinjiang. Over the last two years, China has effectively turned the region into a police state, with block-by-block security checkpoints, surveillance technology and detention centers known as "re-education camps." China says it is trying to prevent Islamic extremism and separatism among Uyghurs.

In Brussels on April 27, 2018, a person wearing a white mask with tears of blood takes part in a protest march of ethnic Uyghurs asking for the European Union to call upon China to respect human rights in the Chinese Xinjiang region.
In Brussels on April 27, 2018, a person wearing a white mask with tears of blood takes part in a protest march of ethnic Uyghurs asking for the European Union to call upon China to respect human rights in the Chinese Xinjiang region.

Earlier this month, a United Nations official said she believes that China is holding as many as 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslims in these re-education camps. Another 2 million reportedly are attending open re-education camps daily and returning home at night.

The whole Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, U.N. rights expert Gay McDougall said, "resembles a massive internment camp."

In answer, a Chinese official told the U.N. "the argument that 1 million are detained in re-education centers is completely untrue." Only those "deceived by religious extremism," the official said, would be "assisted by resettlement and re-education."

Continuing traditions

China's efforts also have threatened many Uyghur cultural and religious traditions, including holding public gatherings and practicing Islam.

Uyghurs living in the United States are eager to get together for holidays to pass on traditions to their children.

Back in Xinjiang, Uyghurs usually go from house to house to celebrate Eid. They share a meal with family and stop by friends' homes to snack on Uighur nan bread, dried fruit and a special fried dough known as sangza.

Here in the Washington area, Uyghurs continue that tradition at Aygul's home. Each of her guests has their own story of a loved one disappearing or of losing contact with their family.

To protect their families in Xinjiang, all of the Uyghurs who spoke to VOA for this story chose not to use their real names. VOA was not able to independently confirm their stories.

Nisa is a young Uyghur woman who came to the U.S. over five years ago for school. Earlier this year, she lost contact with her father. Her father, a government employee, was not political or very religious, Nisa told VOA. She later found out that, while her father was in the hospital, authorities came to his room, put something over his head, and took him away.

A family member explained to her over the phone, "They've taken your dad away to study."

No one has been able to reach Nisa's father since he was taken.

Ilham is a young Uyghur man in his 20s. He knows of at least eight family members who are in re-education camps. But this week, he feels hopeful as he explains to others at Aygul's home that he believes he may have found a secure method to get news from family members back home.

Talking to family in Xinjiang has become nearly impossible in recent months. The Chinese government closely examines everything that comes in and out of Xinjiang. Even simple interactions with people living overseas can put Uyghurs still in Xinjiang at risk.

China's intimidation campaign is not limited to the region. Chinese authorities also pressure families in Xinjiang to get their family members overseas to provide detailed information about their daily lives.

Gulbahar has lived in the midwestern United States for the past year. She says Chinese government officials in March pressured her father to provide information about where she and her brothers go to school. The also wanted their home addresses and information about when they plan to return to China.

Gulbahar passed along the requested information, fearing for her father's safety, she said.

The father and daughter have not spoken since March. Gulbahar's phone calls and text messages have gone unanswered.

On Eid, she decided to send a simple holiday greeting to her parents over the Chinese messaging service WeChat.

"I sent it this morning," Gulbahar said. "But I know I am not going to get anything back."

I'm Caty Weaver.

Ashley Thompson and William Gallo wrote this report for VOA and VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

mood - n. the way someone feels : a person's emotional state

region - n. a part of a country, of the world, etc., that is different or separate from other parts in some way

massive - adj. very large and heavy

deceive - v. to make (someone) believe something that is not true

eager - adj. very excited and interested

dough - n. a mixture of flour, water, and other ingredients that is baked to make bread, cookies, etc.

authorities - n. people who have power to make decisions and enforce rules and laws

interaction - n. the act of talking or doing things with other people

intimidation - n. the act of causing fear

greeting - n. a message that expresses good wishes to someone