The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Uighur school aims to keep a community together, even during the coronavirus pandemic

Irade Kashgary, right, and her mother, Sureyya, are co-founders of Ana Care and Education, a Sunday school of sorts for the region's Uighur community in Fairfax, Va. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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Teaching conjugation and vocabulary to a raucous class of 8- to 12-year-olds isn’t easy. Doing so in a video conference, when buffering can garble even the best pronunciation, adds a new difficulty. When that language is Uighur, which best estimates predict slightly more than 10,000 people in America speak at home, the challenge is especially pronounced.

It’s also critical, says Irade Kashgary, co-founder of Ana Care and Education in Fairfax, Va., a Sunday school of sorts for the area’s Uighur community. Uighurs are an ethnic Muslim group native to the Xinjiang region of western China.

About 11 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, and since 2017, the Chinese government has detained between 1 million and 3 million of them and other Muslim minorities in camps, the U.S. government and human rights groups estimate. (In July, the United Nations announced that China’s treatment of Uighurs meets its definition of genocide.) A few thousand Uighurs live in the D.C. region, according to the Uyghur American Association, most of them in Northern Virginia.

Every Sunday for the past three years, tucked inside an expansive office park of one-story brick buildings, Uighur children learned their language, but also religion and cultural traditions. That ended, like most schools, in early March, when Ana Care and Education stopped holding classes because of the coronavirus pandemic.

After a few weeks, the lessons shifted online. Teachers are using group video chats, and students are recording themselves speaking Uighur and sending in the videos. Within a month, remote Uighur dance and religion classes started, too. But Ana Care and Education’s position in the community as a central gathering place has been hard to replicate virtually.

“I really worry for the community,” says Kashgary, 26. “We’re already disconnected from the Uighurs at home.”

In 2017, the Chinese government began forcibly sending Uighurs to reeducation camps in Xinjiang and preventing them from communicating with the outside. That was the same year Kashgary opened Ana Care and Education with her mother. As the situation worsened in China, more families were drawn to the school. They started with 25 students; now there are 75.

“Our minds are constantly on separation and not being able to see our families,” says Kashgary. “We had this one thing where we could meet with our community members, and now with social isolation, we can’t rely on that either.”

For Kashgary, the school’s community filled some of the void left by being cut off from family in Xinjiang. “I don’t have aunts or uncles I can go to. I don’t have cousins that I can go to. But that is what this school has become for me. ... These are my aunts and uncles; these are my grandparents.”

Kashgary’s family left China because of harassment from the government when she was very young. They spent a year in Turkey before immigrating to Virginia when she was 5. She says most of her family that remains in China, including grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, are being watched by the government or are in work camps.

Her mother, Sureyya Kashgary, hasn’t spoken to her siblings in years. “Sometimes I really want to pick up the phone and call my sister and brothers, but I can’t. They would end up in the camp,” Sureyya says. She recently learned one of her brothers has been interned in a work camp for two years. “It’s so hard. I cannot sleep at night. ... Sometimes I am crying in the middle of the night,” she says.

In China, speaking Uighur is forbidden. Kashgary recalls being shocked when she met another young Uighur who grew up in China but knew less of the language than she did. “We are really facing cultural genocide at this point,” says a mother whose two children attend Ana Care and Education. She spoke on the condition that she be unnamed because she fears retaliation against her family. “Uighurs in diaspora are the only ones who have the ability and possibility of maintaining this culture and language.”

Part of that culture is its cuisine. The restaurant Eerkin’s in Fairfax is another community gathering place that had to shut its doors to dine-in guests because of the pandemic (it reopened in late June). The place serves traditional foods like laghman, thick noodles that are stretched and pulled by hand from a single piece of dough to make one long strand that fills a bowl.

The pandemic has also exacerbated Uighurs’ worries over the safety of family members in China. According to the Uyghur Human Rights Project, there is evidence that the Chinese government is forcing Uighurs to work in factories outside Xinjiang, potentially creating greater risk of coronavirus exposure. They also fear that the poor, confined conditions at the camps could worsen the spread and effects of the virus, and that the government is not being truthful about how many people are infected, Uighur or not.

“The Communist Party did lie for a really long time about the camps,” Kashgary says. “A lot of people in the Uighur community here do not trust those numbers.”

Most of the students at Ana Care and Education know what’s happening in China.

“It’s not an easy conversation to have with kids,” Kashgary says. “If they have questions we try to answer them as much as we can, but we don’t like to make that the top of our topics. It’s more about understanding the culture, the beauty of it.”

Dance is 11-year-old Eldana Parhat’s favorite part of attending Ana Care and Education.

“As a Uighur, I get to do stuff a lot of people can’t experience,” she says. “I feel different in a good way.”

Avery Kleinman is a producer for the WAMU radio show “1A.”

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