Uyghurs abroad suffer ‘collective grief’

Man working in restaurant seen through window (© Emrah Gurel/AP Images)
Many Uyghurs living abroad carry on with their daily lives not knowing whether their relatives in China are safe or alive. A Uyghur man works at a restaurant in Istanbul in 2021. (© Emrah Gurel/AP Images)

Mamtimin Ala, a Uyghur advocate and author working in Belgium, hasn’t seen his relatives in China for years. His friends are among the more than 1 million people the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has detained in camps since 2017. While living abroad shields Ala from a similar fate, it comes at a cost. He suffers from feelings of isolation and being cut off from his roots.

“Uyghurs are gradually losing their foundation — the meaning of their existence,” Ala told ShareAmerica. “As an Uyghur, I am part and parcel of the collective grief and trauma that Uyghurs inside and outside of China are going through.”

In his 2021 book, Worse than Death: Reflections on the Uyghur Genocide, Ala chronicles the PRC’s atrocities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where authorities regularly target predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups. Their actions include mass detention and surveillance, forced labor, and imprisonment of artists, intellectuals and others.

Not knowing if relatives back in China are safe leaves many Uyghurs living abroad with feelings of depression and anxiety. More than 60% of Uyghurs Ala has surveyed reported often feeling detached, suffering from recurring memories of traumatic events, and/or have trouble sleeping.

Man with mask looking away from camera in bakery (© Emrah Gurel/AP Images)
A member of the Uyghur community looks outside from his bakery in Istanbul in 2021. (© Emrah Gurel/AP Images)

While some Uyghurs search for evidence of their missing relatives or lobby for their release from detention, others suffer in silence for fear that speaking out might further endanger their relatives, Ala says. The PRC has intimidated thousands of Uyghurs living abroad, in some cases by threatening their relatives living in China, the Woodrow Wilson Center, a U.S. think tank, noted in a report issued in March (PDF, 2.4MB).

Dr. Thomas Wenzel, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of Vienna, says the lack of information on family members causes Uyghurs to suffer from “a special form of depression or special stress reaction.” Wenzel, in partnership with the University of Munich, is studying the effects of the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang on the Uyghur diaspora in exile communities. Wenzel is also helping develop psychiatric programs to help members of the diaspora.

Both he and Ala emphasized that PRC atrocities in Xinjiang affect Uyghurs abroad and that the trauma should be addressed.

Other Uyghur advocates and mental health experts are also joining forces to provide support.

The Uyghur Wellness Initiative, launched in the United States in May 2020, connects Uyghurs with counselors. According to the New York Times, counselors in Belgium who worked with survivors of the Bosnian genocide are providing online training to support Uyghurs.

Ala says far more work is needed.

“[It] is extremely important for Uyghurs in the first place to recognize the collective trauma that they are going through silently and deeply,” Ala said. “They need a great deal of education on what collective trauma is and on how to promote self-care in the midst of the ongoing humanitarian crisis.”