Uyghur man in Turkey demands answers from Beijing about his mom’s fate

William Yang
6 min readJul 27, 2020

Since 2017, over one millions Uyghurs were sent into re-education camps by the Xinjiang government, causing thousands of Uyghurs abroad lost contact with their family members in Xinjiang as a result. Jevlan Shirmemmet lost contact with his family members in the beginning of 2018, and he has been trying to learn about their whereabouts through different channels ever since. In February 2020, he learned that his mom might have been sentenced to five years for possibly “assisting terrorist activities” through a phone call with staff at the Chinese consulate in Istanbul.

Jevlan Shirmemmet is originally from Korgas County in the Ili Kazakh Autonomous Prefecture in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous region. Both of his parents are lifelong civil servants and his younger brother also began to work in Korgas County after he graduated from college.

On the other hand, Shirmemmet has been studying and working in Istanbul since 2011. He works as a tour guide for Chinese tour groups visiting Istanbul, and every summer and winter break, he would visit family in Xinjiang. However, all changed since January 2018, when he lost contact with his family members.

According to him, the last time he called his parents on WeChat was on January 11, 2018, and nothing seemed suspicious during that call. His mom told him that she planned to retire from her job in three months, but two days after that call, she suddenly deleted him from WeChat. Then, his younger brother and other family members also began to delete him from their WeChat.

Around the same time, similar things were happening to his other Uyghurs friends in Turkey, and this led him to believe that their family members back in Xinjiang may have been ordered to cut off communication with family members living abroad. As a result, he decided to wait until his family members added him back to their WeChat.

After a year, he still didn’t reconnect with his family members on WeChat, so he decided to ask friends in Xinjiang to look for his missing family members. In December 2019, almost two years after he lost contact with them, he learned that his parents and younger brother were sent to the re-education camps in Xinjiang in January, 2018. While his father and younger brother were released in December, 2019, his mom was sentenced to five years in prison for an unknown crime.

Unsuccessful quest to determine his mother’s fate

Shirmemmet said his mom visited Turkey in 2013 as part of a government-approved tour group, and she spent some time with him in Istanbul. But a few years after the trip, she was sent to the re-education camp and then sentenced to five years in prison.

Based on findings through the leaked document “Karakax List,” many Uyghurs were detained in re-education camps after they traveled to one of the 26 sensitive countries listed by the Chinese government, and Turkey is one of the countries on the list. Since his mom visited Turkey in 2013, Shirmemmet worries that this could be the reason of her imprisonment. He tried to find out his family’s whereabouts by going to the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, but the security refused to let him into the building, forcing him to go home and call the consulate instead.

After his initial call with staff at the consulate, his request to seek information about his family’s whereabouts was ignored. Then during a phone call with the staff at the consulate in February 2020, Shirmemmet learned about the possible crime that her mom was charged with.

During the initial part of the conversation, Shirmemmet kept emphasizing that he has been a student and a part-time tour guide since he arrived in Turkey in 2011, and he has never attended any illegal activities. He also described the government’s accusation against him as “nonsense.” The Xinjiang government said Shirmemmet allegedly had interactions with illegal organizations in Turkey and Egypt, but Shirmemmet said he has never been to Egypt.

When Shirmemmet inquired about his mother’s whereabouts, the consulate staff said she was not sentenced to five years in prison because of him. “You are not the cause of your mom’s imprisonment,” the staff said. “She was imprisoned because she violated the Chinese law, and in fact, your violations weren’t considered too serious in the eyes of the authorities back in China.”

“Your mom has probably been influenced by other people, causing her to be imprisoned. I suggest you to try to reflect on the activities that you have taken part in since you moved here, and list them out for us in an e-mail. Maybe authorities back in China will reconsider how they might help you regain communication with your family members.”

The staff also reiterated that his father and younger brother have been released from the re-education camps and they didn’t resume communication with Shirmemmet because they didn’t want to contact him.

Enraged by the consulate staff’s claim, Shirmemmet said he hasn’t been sharing any anti-China content on any social media since the Xinjiang government began to send large amount of Uyghurs in Xinjiang to the re-education camps. “Even after I lost contact with my family, I still tried to maintain a very normal lifestyle,” he said. “I only decided to share my family’s disappearance with the media after I couldn’t learn anything about my family’s conditions through the government for almost two years.”

“We also didn’t know the exact charge against your mom, but she could possibly be sentenced to five years for ‘assisting terrorist activities,’” said the consulate staff. “I’m confident that the prosecutors have gathered enough evidence before they charged her and I don’t think anything you do can change the result. I suggest that you try to provide a clear explanation about your misconducts, and we can try to reconnect you with your father and younger brother.”

“If authorities in China already view you as a troublemaker in Turkey, they probably wouldn’t want to help you. Your family members will also refuse to contact you, just like what your father and younger brother choose to do.”

After the call, the consulate staff suggested Shirmemmet to share records of his important activities over the last few years and sent them to the consulate. Weeks after he followed the consulate’s advice, he still hasn’t received information about his mother, forcing him to e-mail China’s Foreign Ministry to inquire about his mom’s conditions. But the Foreign Ministry also didn’t respond.

After failing to learn about his mom’s fate from the Chinese government, Shirmemmet began to advocate for his mom on different social media platforms. He also connected with other Uyghurs who have lost contact with their family members in Xinjiang. They organized a campaign called “#FreeUyghurmothers,” in which they share a video containing images of their mothers and demand the Chinese government to release them from the camps or prisons.

A call from his father

On June 1st, Shirmemmet suddenly received a call from his hometown, and when he picked up, it was his father on the other side of the phone. His father asked how he was doing. and he also asked about his father and younger brother’s health conditions. His father also mentioned that his mom was still in the camp. When he wanted to ask more about his mom, his father cut him off and asked if he had been studying hard at school. His younger brother and uncle also asked him to study hard while speaking with him on the phone.

Their reactions puzzled him, as he couldn’t understand why all three of them would ask him to stop whatever he has been doing and focusing on studying hard. “I think they wanted me to stop advocating for my mom and them, but my faith tells me that I should keep fighting,” Shirmemmet said.

“I told my father as well as the staff from Xinjiang’s police department that I will not stop speaking out until I secured my mom’s freedom.”

This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

--

--

William Yang

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.