“We can truly live like Muslims in America,” says Uyghur-American Gulchehra Hoja. For Hoja, who lives in Virginia with her family, this is especially true during Ramadan.

“Ramadan is the time when people develop [a] higher level of connection [with] Allah and a connection with their faith,” she says. During the holy month, Hoja observes both Uyghur and Muslim traditions and passes Uyghur culture on to her children.

Gulchehra Hoja in kitchen slicing tomato (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Gulchehra Hoja prepares food for her iftar. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

“I just try to keep my tradition with my kids,” she says. “I try to feed them our traditional food,” such as pulao (meat with carrots and rice) and manta (steamed dough with meat and onions).

The kids are not fasting yet, Hoja says, but “they still get up in the morning” for suhoor, the predawn meal, and attend mosque along with the large Muslim community in Virginia.

Separated from family back home

Uyghur traditions and family are especially important to Hoja since 24 of her relatives in China have disappeared into internment camps. “Every prayer, I pray for them,” she says. “[I pray that] I can see my father and mother again, I can hug my family members again. We can sit together at the dinner table again.”

At left, a family praying at a dinner table. At right, people reaching for bowls of food (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
(Left) The Khakiher family pray before dinner. (Right) The family breaks the fast with dates, nuts and sweets. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Along with members of Hoja’s extended family, 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs and members of other Muslim minority groups have been detained by the Chinese government in camps since April 2017.

The camps are part of an ongoing campaign to suppress ethnic minority cultures in western China. Survivors there say prisoners are tortured, abused and forced to renounce their religion and memorize Chinese Communist Party slogans.

Table with photos, flowers and other items (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Hoja keeps photos of her father, mother and brother, who have been imprisoned since 2017. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

The Chinese government is trying to force people to “give up their faith, give up who they are,” Hoja says. They won’t succeed. “It’s not easy to take somebody’s heart.”

Telling the world

Meanwhile, in the United States, Hoja continues to spread the word about what is happening in China and asking others to help. “We are free. We have [a] responsibility to take action,” Hoja says.

Two people kneeling in prayer (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Hoja and her husband, Arslan Khahiyev, pray in the family room in their home. They face the direction of Mecca. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

“In the world, almost 2 billion people are praying, are celebrating this holy month. So, we wish other Muslims to pray for us. Don’t forget us,” she asks.