When I was born, my uncle was imprisoned under false charges as Uyghurs were being rounded up on China’s request, and sentenced to 15 years in prison overseas. One of my earliest memory is playing outside with my siblings and cousins, and every time a plane flew above us, we would imagine it was my uncle coming home with bags filled with presents for us.
When I was five years old, I went to my home for the first, and last, time. i was there for six months and when I came back to Australia, I had forgotten English. I don’t remember much from that time, but I do remember being surrounded by love and family. But since then, I haven’t been able to go back and it’s almost as if there is something missing from me. Every so often, I try to reminisce my time there. But unfortunately, you don’t remember much from when you were 5.
At the age of nine, my parents threw me a birthday party, as you do for a nine-year-old. Birthdays are meant to be filled with joy and fun – especially when its your own. But I remember walking into my parents’ room only to find my mum sobbing. It’s a little bit traumatic, to find your mother crying on your birthday and being so young, I didn’t really understand why. But as I grew older, I realised that it didn’t matter that it was my birthday. What mattered was back in East Turkistan, the same friends and family I had visited when I was younger did not have basic human rights.Each year since then marked the anniversary of the Urumqi massacre, where hundreds of Uyghurs disappeared and injured, simply for asking for decent human rights. And so, each year on my birthday, I stand in front of a crying crowd to remind the world of the tragic day.
As I grew older, I began to understand the importance of embracing religion and culture. Growing up, my siblings and I were taught how important they were. But there is a difference between being taught something and actually understanding it.
My mother had moved to Australia when she was young and attended a public school. She knew how difficult it was to fit in with a crowd that didn’t look like you, a crowd that would label you as different. So she sent us to attend an Islamic school, where we were surrounded by huge mixture of different ethnicities and cultures. Surrounded by a crowd that couldn’t label you as different, because they were different too. We would share our foods with each other. Foods that would’ve been called ‘weird’ in almost any other school. But with each other, the food wasn’t weird. It was us showing our love to our friends, almost as if it was sharing a piece of ourselves to them. Our school canteen served a variety of food, ranging from samosas to za’atar pizza to sausage rolls.
We would pray together, fast together and learn together. Having other kids your age go through the same path as you made it easy. Although I understand that for many it was tough, I was extremely grateful for this experience. Back at home, we would cook all different types of food. Some days we would eat traditional Uyghur food, other days we would eat things like Lasagna and Shepherds Pie. Fairy bread was our favourite snack and we would take it to all our class parties.
We had other Uyghur kids and our school bus was even nicknamed ‘the Uyghur bus’. I didn’t realise until I was older, but this experience showed me that we didn’t have to struggle in Australia to keep a hold of our values and beliefs. It showed me that Australia is a home to anyone and everyone. It allowed me to understand that each and every culture was unique and different, which is what made multiculturalism beautiful. It made me realise that we have our individual communities, but we also needed to have one another’s back so we don’t fall into the pattern of being alone.
Not only was I surrounded by different ethnicities at school, but at home I was surrounded by a large Uyghur community. And we all understood each other. Not just by sharing our stories, but because our stories were too similar. We all understood how blessed we were to be in Australia, as we could identify as Uyghur and practise islam without it being a danger to us. But we also understood that we missed our loved ones back home and if we had the opportunity to be with the, we would take it almost instantly.
I moved to a catholic school for two years in high school. Although my mum knew how important it was for me to go to an Islamic school to learn and understand my religion, she also understood how important it was for me to know how to communicate and be surrounded by people who may not think like me. It was definitely a culture shock, I had no idea how differently people could think to you. But I was taught the importance of religion, so I did my best to hold to my values. I decided that i would wear the headscarf, I didn’t want to lose myself because of this school. I didn’t know then, but moving to a predominately white school definitely helped me later in life. It showed me change was hard, but it could be done. For my last two years of high school, I moved to another multicultural school. I was back in my element, it helped me with the stress of year 11 and 12. But those two years in catholic school helped me ease into University life.
But it gets tougher to be Uyghur as you grow older. Not because you don’t want to identify with it, but because it can be so draining. Although I understood the importance of identifying as Uyghur, it got tiring to explain to everyone who asked. Too many times, I would wave it off and explain that I was Turkish or if I really wanted to be difficult, I would tell people I was just Australian and that’s it. But once you realise that in your home country that it’s basically almost a crime to just be Uyghur, it makes you regret the times you were lazy to explain who you were.
And so, we decided that it was important as Uyghur youth to stay involved and connected to our identity. We formed a youth group, named People of East Turkistan, or POET for short. With POET, we made sure that each Uyghur youth in Adelaide knew that they had a place within the community and that we would be here for one another. And when the time comes, we would stick together and love one another. Because to be Uyghur today means that we have to stay strong every day. And without the proper support system, it’s too much of a struggle to face head on.
With POET, we held a bunch of different events. We started with a picnic for all turk background youths. To see all these youth running around with each other, it took me back to a time I had forgotten. Running around with my cousins and friends when I was five. It dawned on me that if we didn’t have this group, my younger siblings would never be able to share a similar memory to me. It was like our own version of East Turkistan, one where we were able to do what we wanted to do and simply exist.
But i also knew how important it was stay involved with other communities. Because I grew up not only with Uyghur culture, I knew that I could also bring other communities to mine. I attended different events, bringing along POET to show them that we were all in this together. We go to almost everything we can, ranging from protests for other causes to simple gatherings to chat to learn about each other. I wanted our group to stay connected with each other, but also stay connected with non-uyghurs and wider public so that no one was alone in their own struggles.
For years, I didn’t think i had a story to tell. To me, my story was the story of my ancestors. But I realised that yes, that is my story. But my own story is only just beginning and to me. it’ll be the most important part. it’s the part that moulded me to be who I am, and to be who I will be in the future. Being young, I have my whole life ahead of me. I know that up until now, I have tried my hardest. And I know that from now on I will continue to strive for the best, and show the world how important it is to me to be Uyghur.