Nyrola Elimä

The grim reality of being a ‘model Uighur’

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I left China a decade ago when life there as a Uighur simply became too difficult. People know about the ongoing genocide of the Uighurs, but it didn’t come out of nowhere: it followed years of smaller scale persecution, which I experienced daily.

I first grew aware of how bad things were in 2009, when I got a job in an inland city that required me to travel — a role that became impossible because hotels would refuse to let me stay. Receptionists would see my identity card, which bore my ethnicity, and curtly reply that there were no rooms available. Once, one smiled kindly and told me to wait in the lobby. Ten minutes later, the police arrived, whereupon she pointed at me and said: ‘That’s the Uighur, sitting there.’ I spent the night at the police station on a bench.

Uighurs are a liability for employers and landlords. Mine were summoned to police stations to report on me on a weekly basis, and eventually I was asked to leave. At this point my parents said to me: ‘We want you to leave when there is still a slight chance.’ That’s why I made the decision to go to Sweden on a student visa and thereafter adopt Swedish citizenship. Yet my story pales in comparison to what my family — left behind in our homeland — have had to endure.

By 2017 it became difficult to find information about them. I called my mother repeatedly, but every time I tried to raise the possibility of going home for a visit, she became evasive or silent. Eventually, on a video-call, she held up a piece of paper on which was written: ‘Do not come back.’

In October that year, she was told by the cadres, the public officials, to delete me from WeChat, the Chinese version of WhatsApp.

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