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Economy & Labor , Health , World

Uyghur Women Aren’t Safe No Matter Where They Go

by Melissa Chan April 8, 2021

This piece was published in partnership with The Atlantic and The Fuller Project.

On a summer afternoon nearly four years ago, Maryam Muhammet thought her family’s long journey to freedom was almost complete. The Uyghur woman had arrived in Istanbul from Egypt weeks prior with her two sons, a toddler and an infant, after fleeing the Chinese region of Xinjiang. Her husband had not yet joined the family in Turkey. The couple had heard from others in their community that Egyptian immigration officials—ostensibly acting at the behest of the Chinese government—were hassling Uyghur men as they left, so they decided he would come later, on his own.

That afternoon, he sent Muhammet a WhatsApp message to say he was en route to the port and would travel by ship to Turkey. Soon, they would be together. But the tone of his updates quickly changed. He had encountered problems, and officials were taking him away. He loved her, he wrote. His last message came through at 6:06 p.m. “I will not lose faith in God,” he texted. He never made it to Istanbul.

Muhammet describes the following days—alone, in a strange new city—as the darkest period of her life. Previously in regular contact with her husband, she initially hoped his silence somehow meant he was on his way. But days turned into a week, then a week into two. For a while, she did little beyond clutching her boys, crying over her uncertain future. She assumed that the worst had happened, that her husband was now in the hands of the Chinese authorities. Her mother-in-law would later confirm her suspicions.

“Before my husband’s detention, I lived in one world. After my husband’s detention, I’ve existed in another universe,” Muhammet told me. “I was once lucky and happy. Now, I’ve entered darkness and I cannot see my way forward.”

In recent years, Beijing has mounted a crackdown in Xinjiang against the mostly Muslim Uyghur ethnic group, subjecting its people to mass detention and unending surveillance in a merciless act of collective punishment. Roughly 1 million Uyghurs have been rounded up for “crimes” that include praying, wearing a headscarf, and having relatives overseas, human-rights groups say. The United States, as well as the Canadian and Dutch parliaments, have labeled the repression a genocide.

The offensive has triggered an exodus of Uyghurs, according to the World Uyghur Congress, and exiles like Muhammet have become some of the most important sources providing the world with a picture of what’s happening in Xinjiang.

Yet even when Uyghurs are free of China’s territory, they do not feel safe from its reach. Those who have left Xinjiang face imprisonment if they return home and persistent insecurity abroad. Some have been hounded and threatened with deportation by immigration officials of countries seeking to improve ties with Beijing.

Women—many of whom escape separately from their husbands—face particular difficulties when, as is often the case, their partners are caught fleeing. Even the most educated and highly skilled of these women, having grown up in a patriarchal society, are suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar position, becoming lonely migrants in new countries and tasked with heading households they had assumed would include husbands, fathers, uncles, and brothers. Muhammet, for example, had studied law in China and Arabic in Egypt. She had hoped to stay abroad for graduate school but, now a de facto single mother, has suspended those plans and instead tutors elementary-school students to pay the bills.

Her story is far from unique. I spoke with half a dozen Uyghur women who had left Xinjiang, and corroborated their accounts with travel and asylum documents, as well as posts on social media. Despite their different backgrounds and income and education levels, their stories of life in Xinjiang and their experiences abroad follow a widely documented pattern of abuse and fear, say analysts who closely follow China’s detention system. Their hardships outside China often get overlooked, in part because these exiles draw little attention to their troubles when they see their relatives back home suffering so much more. But the Uyghur crackdown needs to be understood as “a multifaceted crisis,” Zumretay Arkin, an advocacy manager at the World Uyghur Congress, told me. “International attention has been on the camps for so long that so many other aspects of this crisis have been ignored.”

Kelbinur Tursun left China in 2016, when she was pregnant with her seventh child, to evade a forced abortion. China has discarded the one-child policy for its dominant ethnic Han community, but continues to deploy aggressive family-planning measures in places that have large ethnic-minority populations, such as Xinjiang.

Her youngest son, then 2, traveled with her. The rest of the family would follow once they had their travel documents in order. But Tursun’s husband disappeared—she would later learn that he was sentenced to 15 years in prison, in part because of his plan to exit—and so she gave birth to her baby daughter, Merziye, alone in Istanbul.

She had not worked while living in Xinjiang, but faced with her new economic reality, Tursun walked into a tailor’s shop two months after delivering Merziye and started as a seamstress. It was her first job. A year later, she opened her own workshop, fashioning everything from headscarves to winter coats, hunched most hours over her sewing machine as her children ran around. Now a local nonprofit supplements Tursun’s shop earnings by providing her with a box of food staples and 100 liras, or $12, a month, and has helped her make rent on occasion.

“I never thought I would be able to start my own business—and do so abroad,” she told me. “Sometimes, I’m in disbelief that I can achieve all of this.”

In Zeytinburnu, a neighborhood on Istanbul’s European side populated largely by emigrants from Central Asia, a sisterhood of Uyghur women, all separated from their husbands, has come together for community support. When she’s not working, Tursun helps others find jobs in the textile industry. Most have never spent so much time apart from their partner. Together, they talk about post-traumatic stress disorder, their husbands’ absence from their children’s lives, and how much their own lives have changed. Tursun has even admitted how good she feels making and spending her own money, a new independence that may surprise her husband, if they ever reunite.

In some respects, these women are better able to cope than their male kin. At least in Istanbul, Tursun says, Uyghur women have a better chance of finding work given the city’s sizable female-dominated garment industry. Women also tend to examine their feelings and check their mental health more, experts and activists say.

“Often there is a real strength and resilience amongst women,” Hillary Margolis, a senior women’s-rights researcher at Human Rights Watch who has worked with refugees and migrants across several continents, told me. Still, “it’s an incredible amount of stress, anxiety, and responsibility—and often for people who have not been prepared for that.”

Support networks like Tursun’s, in Zeytinburnu, however, are ad hoc. Help from the state is lacking. These women have to navigate byzantine bureaucracies just to obtain the legal right to work, let alone avail themselves of other safety nets.

Turkey is not the only destination for Uyghurs. A small but significant minority end up in North America. Late last year, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services faced a backlog of more than 370,0000 asylum applications submitted by migrants from around the world. Under the Trump administration, the processing period at the agency had steadily grown longer, and in some cases doubled. The Biden administration has signaled that it wants to push forward on immigration reform, and those who’ve lobbied for fast-tracking Uyghur asylum cases hope to see an announcement on the matter soon.

For now, though, applications are being processed at a glacial pace. Kalbinur Awut arrived in the U.S. for a master’s program six years ago, when she was two months pregnant, and applied for asylum soon after. Her husband couldn’t obtain a visa to accompany her, so he embarked on a circuitous escape from Xinjiang and ended up in Belgium.

Awut’s application is still pending—she attended a hearing earlier this year. Because people with ongoing asylum applications tend to face complications if they travel abroad, she has not seen her husband since arriving in the U.S., and he has not seen their son in the flesh at all. Activists told me that her experience is not unusual—that, in fact, hundreds of Uyghurs have waited that long or longer for their asylum applications to be processed.

“It’s so sad,” Awut told me when we spoke over the phone. She began to cry, while her boy played cheerfully and cluelessly in the background. “We are overseas in this free world, but he cannot see his father face-to-face.”

Awut holds a temporary work permit while her application winds its way through the system. But employers worry about her immigration status. Despite completing a master’s degree—her second, this one in computer science, after the one she initially landed in the U.S. to study for—she’s had no luck applying for jobs. She’s sold her car and has just a few months of savings left.

In Turkey, the process of obtaining long-term residency papers is arbitrary, dependent on the whims of the civil servant on duty on any given day. It’s “bureaucratic and messy,” Omer Kanat, the director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C., told me. Migrants “are just in limbo.”

Not having the correct paperwork prevents Uyghurs and other migrants from accessing crucial social services such as education and health care. And, if anything, prospects for Uyghurs in Turkey are getting worse. Ankara has offered asylum to Uyghurs from China, who speak a Turkic language and are of the same religion as many Turks, since the 1950s. In 2009, Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, excoriated China’s treatment of Uyghurs as “genocide.” Now, in light of a far more powerful China, he says little. His government is even working on an extradition treaty with Beijing that could mean the deportation of Uyghurs on expansive and specious grounds. (The Turkish government has not publicly commented on delays in its asylum-processing system.)

Muhammet and Tursun are in many ways lucky: They both obtained long-term residence permits, allowing them to work. Many of their fellow exiles have waited as long as eight years for that paperwork to come through. With it, Uyghur migrants gain some shred of stability. Muhammet is even thinking about what she may do next: She hopes to return to school, this time to study human-rights law.

Yet there is still little hope of seeing her husband. For now, she shields her boys from their father’s absence, barely mentioning him in an effort to normalize their childhood. Having lived outside China for several years, she finds that the country nevertheless holds enormous sway over her life, over her family. She had once lived in Beijing as a student, and considered herself a citizen of China. “I never thought China could ever be this dark,” she told me, “this heartless.”

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