Above image by European Parliament from EU – Sakharov Prize: daughter of 2019 laureate Ilham Tohti receives prize on his behalf, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=85020487
By Alex Dimeff, graphic designer
UNO Press recently released Jewher Ilham’s second book, Because I Have To: The Path to Survival, The Uyghur Struggle. It’s the latest volume in the Broken Silence Series, which highlights voices of dissidents across the globe. If there’s one truth I’ve learned from working on various volumes in this collection, it’s this:
The attention of the mass media is fickle, but human rights activists dedicate themselves to their struggle for years or even decades.
Jewher Ilham’s work focuses on her own people, the Uyghurs. A predominantly Muslim, Turkic ethnic group native to northwest China, they have faced racial discrimination and restricted access to higher education and desirable jobs for years. In the mid-2010s, the Chinese government began to oppress the Uyghurs with increasing severity under the pretext of providing vocational training and combatting separatism. Reported abuses include arbitrary arrests, forced disappearances, and involuntary sterilizations and abortions.
In her new book, Jewher explains why her advocacy work never ends:
“It’s almost like if you stop posting about the Uyghur issue, people might think it’s no longer an issue. They’ll assume that if the main advocates are not talking about it, then the Uyghurs probably are doing just fine.”
It’s a lesson in object permanence. Even when we’re not looking in its direction, human suffering continues, and so the advocate’s mission continues too.
Jewher Ilham’s journey into activism began in 2014, about a year after the Chinese government detained her father Ilham Tohti, himself an advocate for Uyghur rights. He was arrested in the Beijing airport, just before he and Jewher were to board a plane together to the US, where he’d been invited to spend a year as a visiting scholar. It was difficult to understand why anyone would target Ilham Tohti. He was an economics professor and a political moderate who worked for a better relationship between the Uyghur minority and the Han Chinese majority, who make up over 90% of China’s population.
Jewher was only a teenager at the time of her father’s arrest. She boarded the plane alone and arrived in the US without any family, speaking only some English.
She chose to stay in the States. After studying for and passing the TOEFL, she matriculated at Indiana University. There, she balanced the numerable challenges of normal undergraduate life with the stresses unique to a Chinese-born Uyghur activist. She worried over her visa, over her father’s imprisonment, and over whether her public advocacy for his release would encourage the Chinese government to punish the rest of her family. Her mother and two brothers were still living in Beijing.
While still in school, Jewher committed herself to advocacy work. She gave interviews to journalists, travelled internationally to human rights events, and presented her father’s story to US senators, the European Parliament, and the UN.
In 2015, I worked on Jewher’s first book (Jewher Ilham: A Uyghur’s Fight to Free Her Father) as a designer and audio transcriptionist. In the years that followed, I watched as journalists covered the abuses against Uyghurs more and more frequently. Small news items turned into longer articles, even a John Oliver episode. As the world heard reports of forced labor and internment camps, international outrage grew.
But of course, humanitarian disasters continued to unfold across the globe. Hurricanes, wildfires, wars. The ongoing Syrian and Venezuelan refugee crises, the escalation of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the civil war in Ethiopia. The 7.2-magnitude earthquake in Haiti, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In this world of simultaneous tragedies, the outcry over the Uyghur genocide periodically recedes.
Some critics of Western imperialism doubt the genocide altogether, dismissing victims as mouthpieces for anti-communist propaganda. To these skeptics, the internment camps fit too neatly into a chauvinist, anti-China narrative.
It’s true that some political actors in the West may choose to highlight China’s human rights violations for geopolitical or economic reasons, or even as a cynical appeal to raw Sinophobia. But there is also pragmatic motivation for our politicians to minimize the Uyghur genocide. After all, many statesmen in the US and Europe are wary of disturbing an already-fragile relationship between their own country and China.
I want to emphasize that Jewher’s advocacy work was never based in pro-NATO Realpolitik or in a broad antipathy towards China. Jewher grew up in Beijing, speaking Mandarin, spending time with Han Chinese friends. It was difficult for her to come to terms with the internment camps:
“I didn’t want to believe it. Because in my mind, I wanted to believe China was still a peaceful country. I was holding onto the idea that most of the Chinese people whom I knew were really kind.”
“I totally got it when my Han Chinese friends . . . assumed it was all Western propaganda. Even as a Uyghur who had experienced the severity of the Chinese authorities, I needed some time to process this information [about the camps and the widespread disappearances in the Uyghur Region].”
The genocide was a difficult truth to face, but Jewher had no choice. She had to confront it because it was happening to her own people. And so she spoke out. Not because of an economic rivalry between global superpowers, but because of her father’s unjust life sentence, because of the Uyghurs who were disappeared, because of reports of torture and forced sterilizations.
For the victims of the genocide and their advocates, the condition of Uyghurs always remains real, relevant, and central—regardless of whether or not it’s in the international headlines that week.
Jewher has been in this fight for nearly a decade. As a Uyghur, she doesn’t get to look away. In her own words: “Whether I chose it or not, this is my life now, and I have no other option but to continue my work. Because I have to.”
Because I Have To: The Path to Survival, The Uyghur Struggle by Jewher Ilham, edited by Adam Braver, with an introduction by Sophie Richardson is available here.