JEVLAN SHIRMEMMET GREW UP in Qorghas county in northwestern Xinjiang, a Uighur and the son of government workers. Starting in kindergarten, his parents enrolled him in a Mandarin school, thinking it would help him eventually get a job.
As he grew older, he started to see changes in the ways Han Chinese viewed Uighurs: Some felt the minority group had unfair advantages such as extra points added to their college exam scores. Yet Shirmemmet says the quotas for ethnic minorities also meant they had to fight for a small number of spots.
Shirmemmet’s parents advised him to keep his head down and focus on his education. He attended Xinjiang University before deciding to study abroad in Turkey. In 2013, he returned to travel around China with friends and remembers experiencing discrimination for his ethnicity: At each hotel he stayed at, police would knock on his door to check his ID and ask what he was doing there. Frustrated, he began to pretend to be a foreigner by speaking English.
The last time Shirmemmet visited home was in October 2016. Afterward he started to hear about friends disappearing amid the increasing crackdown. He thought his parents would be safe, as they worked for the government, but in January 2018, his family suddenly deleted him on WeChat. Just days before, he had had an ordinary chat with his mother and planned to talk with her again soon. Then, silence.
Shirmemmet feared that by trying to contact them he would bring them more trouble. Through a friend, he learned that his parents and younger brother had been sent to a reeducation camp. His father and brother were later released, but his mother had been sentenced to five years in detention. Shirmemmet believes this is because she had visited Turkey in 2013 through a Chinese tour group and met with him while in Istanbul.
“I was terrified,” Shirmemmet said. “I had no contact with my family, and I can’t hear my mother’s voice. This is very hard to deal with, very hard to endure.”
As a Chinese citizen, Shirmemmet repeatedly contacted the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul to gather more information about his mother, but officials there didn’t respond. In January 2020 he decided to go public, recording his testimonial on YouTube, posting on social media, and speaking with media. A month later, the consulate finally called him back. The officials accused him of contacting foreign forces in Turkey and Egypt, which Shirmemmet strongly rejected, as he had never even been to Egypt.
They claimed his mother was likely detained because she supported terrorism. Shirmemmet demanded to see the documentation of her charges, but the official said they first needed him to write down everyone he had met with during his four years in Turkey. He complied, sending in four pages of his contacts, but the consulate still hasn’t responded.
Like Pulat, Shirmemmet thinks the government’s claims the camps are vocational training centers are ludicrous: What did his parents, who had worked for the government for 30 years and could speak perfect Mandarin, need to be trained for? And why weren’t non-Uighurs also given this training?
He says some of his Chinese friends sympathize with him; others have been convinced by Chinese propaganda that the government treats Uighurs well and is only rooting out terrorism.
Even though it can get discouraging, he plans to keep speaking out: “You can’t shut my mouth.”