'I have nothing else to lose': Uighur Canadians fear for relatives who may be imprisoned in China

There are over 1,500 Uighurs living in Canada. Many tell stories of loss as family members languish in Chinese prisons or re-education camps.

Uighur Canadians call on Ottawa to take action against mass detention

Mustaqil Tuygun, 20, is Durham College students who worries that his mother may be in an internment camp in China. (CBC)

Mustaqil Tuygun's brother might be imprisoned in China. He doesn't know for sure. 

"I heard one of my brothers got sent to jail for 17 years for listening to the Quran with his friends," the Durham College student said in an interview on Monday. 

"It's 2019, it shouldn't be like this," he added. "He didn't do anything wrong."

The Tuyguns are a Uighur family from the Xinjiang region in China. Mustaqil fled Xinjiang with his father in 2015 but the rest of his relatives couldn't follow. He hasn't heard from his mother in two years.

"I don't know if they're dead or alive," the 20-year-old said in an interview with CBC Toronto.

Now, as leaked documents showing the systemic mass detention of the Muslim minority Uighurs in China emerge, Tuygun fears his family has been interned.

"I have nothing else to lose anymore. I lost my country. I lost my people; my mom, my relatives. I've lost everything I can." he said.

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists obtained and released official Communist Party documents describing chilling conditions in China's re-education camps, including 24-hour surveillance, forced ideological lessons and psychological modifications for the minority group. 
Leaked Chinese government documents reveal the prison-like detention and indoctrination taking place at camps in China’s Xinjiang region, where ethnic minority Muslims — known as Uighurs — are being held. The documents were obtained, verified and translated by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists in collaboration with CBC News.  4:13

'Is it my brother? Is it my sister?'

"Every time I hear about the camp, I think, 'Is it my brother? Is it my sister?'" said Aminiguli Aizezi. The 29-year-old lives in East York with her husband and three children. In the summer of 2014, a few months before she moved to Canada with her family, her brother was detained in China. 

"Police came to my home and they said, 'We have to talk with you for a few hours,' to my brother. They took him and we never heard from him again," she said.

After a few months, Aizezi said her family was told that her brother would be detained for 14 years because he was caught performing Salah, or Muslim prayers.

In the following years, her mother and sister were also detained and placed in camps, she said. She hasn't heard from them since.

"I try to call them all the time," she said. "All the time."

Canada's former ambassador to China, David Mulroney, called China's treatment of the Muslim minority group "the worst thing we've seen because of its scope" in recent history. 

"They're demolishing mosques, they're bulldozing Muslim graveyards, they've forbidden the use of Muslims to wear traditional clothing and so its a systematic effort to erase a culture." Mulroney added in an interview with CBC's Metro Morning.

China's response

In response to the document leaks, Chinese officials have called the reporting "pure fabrication." Liu Xiaoming, the Chinese ambassador to the U.K., said: "They're what we call vocational education training centres. They are there for the prevention of terrorism."

When pressed on the issue, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said: "Let me reiterate our position that Xinjiang affairs are China's internal affairs. Certain media are trying to smear China's counter-terrorism and de-radicalization efforts in Xinjiang by despicably hyping up Xinjiang-related issues, but their attempts will not succeed. Stability, ethnic solidarity and harmony in Xinjiang is the best response to such disinformation."

Both Aziezi and Tuygunn tell a different story and they want the Canadian government to stand up for Uighur rights on the international stage. According to Statistics Canada's 2016 census, there are over 1,500 Uighurs living in Canada. 
Albanian-Canadian historian Olsi Jazexhi describes a propaganda tour of what the Chinese government calls a 'vocational education training centre' in Xinjiang, China, and how shocked he was at the 'crimes' people were accused of. 1:42
"I think Canadians need to be talking about this and encouraging Ottawa to have some backbone because I don't think it has any right now," Mulroney said.

Global Affairs Canada has responded to the reports. 

"This is an issue our government has raised directly with the Chinese. Canada has consistently spoken out publicly at the UN Human Rights Council urging Chinese authorities to release all Uyghurs arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang. This includes statements in September 2018, November 2018, and March 2019," 

But Aziezi and Tuygun are hoping for stronger action. In the meantime, they're trying to preserve the memories they have of their lost families as much as they can.

"I remember my mother cooking Uighur food for us," Aziezi said. "Every time I sit down with my kids for lunch, dinner, whatever, I miss her so much." 

"At times I cry," Tuygun said. "I remember being with [my mother]. I can't forget."