Montreal's Uyghur community is speaking up about reality in China
MONTREAL -- With family members jailed abroad and threatening phone calls at home, Uyghur-Montrealers say they fear for their safety.
A Muslim minority of Turkic ethnic descent from China, Uyghur refugees say they are concerned about persecution in their home country.
The Semseddins have lived in Montreal for a decade. Even as Canadian citizens, the couple said they feel unsafe because of Chinese authorities.
Since 2017, at least 1 million Uyghurs were forced into camps.
“The Chinese government calls them educational, vocational training centres,” said Kyle Matthews, director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights. “In fact, they’re separated from their families, and people don't know why they’re held.”
There has been growing condemnation of the Uyghur persecution from the international community and human rights groups, said Matthews, adding that some violence took place between the Han Chinese majority in Xinjiang province and the Uyghurs.
Matthews pointed to recently leaked classified documents published by an international consortium of journalists that revealed China created these camps to deal with violent ideologies.
“There was some terrorism, but nothing justifies an approach of taking a million people and basically brain-washing them,” said Matthews. “It goes against all sorts of international human rights.”
Xu Hairong, the Communist Party chief of Urumqi city, Xinjiang's capital, called the camps “counter-terrorism and de-radicalization efforts.”
Kalbinur Semseddin said that’s not true.
“Our scholars are gone, they don't need the training,” said Kalbinur. “Our doctors are gone, they don’t need the training. My husband’s nephew, he just graduated from university – he doesn't need the training.”
Since the U.S. passed a Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act this week denouncing the camps, the Chinese government claims all of the students in those camps have “graduated,” and are now free to go. But Kalbinur said she got word from a contact in Turkey that her brother was recently transferred from the camp he was being held in since 2017, to jail.
“All the Uyghur people they put in the jails, it's starting. Five years, six years, 20 years,” said Bahktiar Semseddin. “They are trying to empty concentration camps, after that human rights policy act, but they transferred to the jail.”
Kalbinur said on top of jailing her people, the Uyghur culture is being erased from Chinese history.
“Our history is gone, the streets that I know are gone, the people that I know are gone. I can’t bring them back anymore,” she said.
The Semseddins said the Uyghur community in Montreal is also receiving threatening phone calls if they speak out about the persecution of their people back in China.
It's not an isolated incident.
In March, days before the Montreal Institute of Genocide and Human Rights hosted a global Uyghur leader, they received pressure from China as well.
Matthews said he received messages from the Chinese consul general of Montreal to cancel the talk. When Matthews didn’t answer, the consul general then called the mayor of Montreal’s office and put pressure on the mayor’s staff to try to shut down our event.
“He said he did that because he wanted to protect Canadian students from a terrorist,” said Matthews. “It’s a wider pattern of trying to shut down any critical debate about what China’s doing within its borders.”
Kalbinur said the message they get from those calls is clear “you are not safe anymore, just be careful, we are going what steps you are taking.”
Kalbinur said the persecution the Uyghur people are facing in China is affecting the mental health of their community in Montreal.
“This is a big pressure,” continued Kalbinur. “I have food to eat, a husband to support me, work to support myself financially, but I can’t stop thinking of my family members.”
The Semseddins said the Uyghur-Montreal community is small, about 100 families, but they have a lot to say.
“We reached the limit,” said Kalbinur. “We passed the limit. And I can't just zip it, and be silent anymore.”