Young Uyghurs try to preserve their language thousands of miles from home

Young Uygurs try to preserve their language thousands of miles away very from home


This is a somewhat special school near Washington, open on weekends and dedicated to members of the Uyghur diaspora wishing to speak their language, a central element of their culture and a vehicle for discussing the tragedies suffered by their loved ones who remained in China. 

Welcome to Ana Care and Education, a place where education is apolitical, insists Irade Kashgary, 29, who co-founded school with his mother, Sureyya.

Despite this displayed neutrality, older students can find a space here “to discuss in safety what is happening, the consequences they are enduring,” she adds.

The Uyghurs, Turkic-speaking Muslims and the first ethnic group of the Chinese region of Xinjiang, are victims of a fierce repressive policy.

Authorities in Beijing have locked up more than a million in political re-education camps, according to human rights organizations. The Chinese government claims that these sites are vocational training centers intended to keep them away from radicalization.

At the Ana Care and Education school, teaching focuses on language, language, history and culture of the Uyghurs, much more linked to the peoples of Central Asia than to the Han ethnic group, the majority in China.

Many of the pupils or students were forced to leave Xinjiang to flee repression. School, for them, comes to try to fill a void and this broken link with their native land, which they call Eastern Turkestan.

Irade Kashgary

< p>“Sense of loss”

“This sense of loss has fueled the need to conserve and preserve our culture and our language,” analyzes Ms. Kashgary.

The children in exile “don't even have any more cousins, uncles and aunts with whom to exchange, in order to keep the language alive”.

The school, located near the US capital in the state of Virginia, started in 2017 with around 20 students. They are now a hundred. Virginia has nearly 3,000 Uyghur speakers, according to community estimates.

For them, even calling a family member back in Xinjiang can have dire consequences.

“We want to talk to our loved ones by phone or internet, but it's not possible, because if we connect, there is a risk that they will be imprisoned,” says Savut Kasim, 49, whose children study here.

“The genocide of the Uyghurs in East Turkestan is very real,” he continues. “So we try to keep our language by all possible means”.

In recent years, several Western countries, including the Netherlands, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Canada, France or the United States, denounced the “genocide” of the Uyghurs, through a motion of their Parliament or a position taken by their government.

Cannot return

This desire for preservation is shared by members of a first generation of Americans who have not known Xinjiang.

Muzart, 18, learned to read and write the language of his parents in a Uyghur school. He now volunteers at a summer language teaching program in California. “We try to talk to children only in Uyghur,” he says.

Zilala Mamat, also 18, a student in Michigan, co-founded a network for Uyghur youth in 2021, forging connections through social networks around various events.

“It was missing within our community”, observes the young woman, deploring that these young people are deprived of the possibility of making trips to their family cradle.

“We is different”

“We are the survivors of a genocide. […] We are different from the others, ”says Asena Izgil, another 21-year-old student.

Her life in Xinjiang changed in 2017, relates this exile born in the large city of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. “Friends and relatives, people we know, have had problems. They were sent to camps or to prison. My father was very worried. We decided to leave.”

In contrast, on American soil, “we eat Uyghur food, my mother teaches us Uyghur cuisine, we celebrate Uyghur festivals, we follow all the religious customs that we could not follow in our native land… freely and without fear”.