The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Their Uyghur relatives are imprisoned in China. From Virginia, they plead for help.

Kalbinur Gheni, 35, is pictured near her home in Northern Virginia. She says her sister, Renagul Gheni, is detained in a forced-labor camp in China. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Weeks before then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused China of committing genocide against Uyghur Muslims, Kalbinur Gheni met him in his office in Foggy Bottom.

She had three minutes to tell him about her sister, Renagul, and how she was sentenced to a Chinese internment camp for 17 years for praying and reading the Koran.

“I could hear my heart beat,” Kalbinur said, describing the Dec. 3 session. “I told him, ‘This is only one example happening to millions of families back home.’ ”

The encounter encapsulated the reason Kalbinur moved last year from Boston to Northern Virginia: to be as close as possible to the people in power, believing they could help free her sister.

Renagul, 39, is one of more than a million Uyghurs who have been detained in internment camps in China, where they have been subject to abuse, forced labor and indoctrination, according to the U.S. State Department.

Family members in Northern Virginia — one of the largest diasporas of Uyghurs in the United States — are largely powerless to help them. Speaking out, even from here, can carry grave risks of reprisal by China, which is why many choose to stay silent. But some, like Kalbinur, have taken the risk, bringing their stories to the highest echelons of government.

“Nobody wants to cry for anyone, but if it happens to you, what can you do?” Kalbinur said. “We can let people hear us, because back home nobody can.”

In recent weeks, their advocacy has seen several significant victories.

Some diplomats and lawmakers are pushing the Biden administration to boycott the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Members of Congress from both parties have brought bills to ensure that U.S. companies don’t profit from Uyghur forced labor, and to fast-track protections for Uyghur asylum seekers in the United States.

Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D), who introduced one of those bills in the House on Thursday, said hearing directly from Uyghurs in her Northern Virginia district is what has compelled her to prioritize the legislation.

“I was just so horrified that I wanted to do something about it,” she said in an interview. “They didn’t know if their family members were alive or dead. They weren’t even able to reach out to them to see if they were safe.”

The Biden administration has not yet unveiled specific actions it plans to take to hold China accountable. But both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the White House have echoed Pompeo’s determination that China is committing genocide — statements that make Kalbinur believe she and other Uyghur advocates are finally being heard.

“We were saying — we were screaming — for the last four years that this is genocide,” she said.

Still, as Kalbinur learned soon after meeting with Pompeo, the louder she yelled, the more China paid attention to her.

And the more Kalbinur had to ask herself: Was it really worth it?

Who are the Uyghurs, and what’s happening to them?

Finding her voice

The last time Kalbinur spoke to her sister — an art teacher and married mother of two — was four years ago. Kalbinur was in Malaysia, studying for her PhD in business management, when her mother and Renagul appeared on a frantic WeChat video call. Their eyes were puffy and red.

“They just kept telling me, just take care of yourself,” Kalbinur said, and that they would not be able to call for a while.

For the next two years, calls and texts to her family went unanswered.

Finally, a college friend in Beijing learned that Renagul had been detained in what the Chinese government then called a “reeducation center.” It was located just a short walk from their home in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, Kalbinur said.

China denies mistreating Uyghurs or committing genocide, and the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not answer questions from The Washington Post about specific cases. Xinjiang officials said at a Feb. 1 news conference that the camps are intended as an “active exploration of preventive anti-terrorism and deradicalization.”

Sean R. Roberts, a foreign affairs professor at George Washington University and author of “The War on the Uyghurs: China’s Campaign Against Xinjiang’s Muslims,” said local officials seeking to forcibly assimilate Uyghur Muslims with Han Chinese can define virtually any practice of Islam as extremism.

“It’s a frightening prospect that has framed all of the policies towards this region in the last four years,” Roberts said. “There is this recurring theme about ‘preventive’ counterterrorism, which is obviously very problematic. . . . It becomes thought police very quickly.”

In the spring of 2019, Kalbinur fled Malaysia for Boston. At night, she used sleeping pills to stifle fears about Renagul. “I imagine every day, my sister, how she’s coping. Every day, what she’s eating,” Kalbinur said. “Are they going to torture her today? Are they giving her food?”

She shared her situation with only a few close Uyghur friends she met on Facebook — until October 2019, when she was invited to an event at the University of Rochester focused on China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.

Did she want to speak out?

Kalbinur took a deep breath. She decided it was time.

China scrubs evidence of Xinjiang clampdown amid ‘genocide’ debate

Waiting too long

For many Uyghurs, the decision to come forward can be years in the making.

Subi Mamat Yuksel tried to hide her anxieties from her family after her father went missing, detained on the day he and his wife were supposed to fly to the United States for a visit.

After her toddler noticed her distress, she put Post-it notes around the house reminding herself to smile. She grew more restless around dusk, knowing that it was dawn back home and that her WeChat messages could light up any minute with bad news.

“Every night I would start having panic attacks,” said Yuksel, who lives in Manassas. “What’s going to happen? What news am I going to hear?”

For two years, she stayed quiet. Until her father — a former Xinjiang forestry official — was sentenced to life in prison, accused of being a “two-faced separatist” disloyal to the Chinese Communist Party.

“Then I realized we waited way too long,” Yuksel said. She made the leap into the public eye in February 2020, at an event hosted by the Uyghur Human Rights Project.

She had come to Northern Virginia in 2007 while on a student visa, in search of the Uyghur community her brother had told her about, with its plethora of familiar restaurants and even a Uyghur school.

But this was her first time working with D.C.-based advocacy groups, and the first time she realized how many in her community shared her situation. “I felt so guilty, for two years that I passed without speaking out,” she said. “Finally when I was standing with other Uyghurs holding their family’s pictures, I felt like I was doing something right.”

By September, with her baby on her lap, Yuksel was telling her story to Wexton over Zoom.

Tense back-and-forth marks sharp breaks in U.S.-China relations

The congresswoman keeps a Uyghur hat on prominent display in her Capitol Hill office — a gift from constituents, and a daily reminder of the people depending on her help.

She was recently named to the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which monitors human rights abuses. On Thursday, Wexton reintroduced her Uyghur Forced Labor Disclosure Act, which puts the onus on U.S. companies to audit supply chains to ensure they aren’t exploiting Uyghurs. And earlier this month, she joined Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) in introducing a bill to expedite the asylum process for Uyghurs.

“These are people who are in legal limbo,” Wexton said. “They don’t have a voice, and so I was determined to be their voice.”

The desire to punish China over its treatment of the Uyghurs has become a rare bipartisan force in Congress. In January, the Trump administration blocked all cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang from entering the country. The Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, sponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), would block the import of all goods from the Xinjiang region on the presumption that they are tainted by forced labor, unless a company can prove otherwise.

It passed the House last session, but did not get a vote in the Senate. That could change this year, as pressure builds for the Biden administration to address the genocide allegations — and curb China’s economic influence.

A White House spokeswoman said last month that the administration was evaluating what measures were needed to “ensure that products made with forced labor do not enter U.S. supply chains.”

“Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities have suffered unspeakable oppression at the hands of China’s authoritarian government,” said Emily Horne, a spokeswoman for Biden’s National Security Council. “China has engaged in gross human rights violations that shock the conscience and must be met with serious consequences.”

'I don't have any fear'

After Kalbinur’s speech at the University of Rochester, young people lined up to talk to her — first a Jewish student whose grandmother survived a Nazi concentration camp, then a Chinese student who said he was sorry. Finally, Kalbinur said, “I felt like I wasn’t alone in this.”

Emboldened, she started a Twitter account, peppering Chinese officials with questions: “Where is my sister? Where is our millions of Uyghurs?”

She traveled with other Uyghurs by bus from Boston to meet with lawmakers in Washington as they considered the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, which passed in June and requires the federal government to track China’s abuses against the Uyghurs.

Soon she decided to move to Northern Virginia, to live in Congress’s backyard.

But as she continued to speak out online, police in her family’s town contacted her through her brother’s WeChat account multiple times, imploring her, “You need to think about your family.”

Her brother reached out himself — probably under duress, Kalbinur said — pleading with her to stop her activism. It was her first contact with any family member since 2017.

Eventually, Kalbinur said, she told the officials she would stop — if they released her sister.

After she met with Pompeo, the intimidation escalated, Kalbinur said.

A Chinese official who went by the name “Ali” contacted her through a family member’s WeChat account in January.

At first he didn’t say what he wanted, according to copies of the messages provided to The Post.

“Then help me find my sister,” Kalbinur wrote to him in Mandarin. “You guys are supposed to know everything. She’s not supposed to just disappear like that.”

She said that she had been reading about the wrongful imprisonment of Uyghurs in headlines every day, and that she knew her sister was among them.

“Lies, definitely don’t believe,” Ali wrote back.

“I don’t want to believe it, but my sister has been missing for almost three years,” Kalbinur responded. “How can you ask me to believe?”

He called Kalbinur on the phone and stayed on the line for 92 minutes. Why did she go to Pompeo? he asked. Because China wouldn’t help me, Kalbinur said. He tried to convince her it was safe to come home. Kalbinur told him she knew it wasn’t.

Then he had a proposition, Kalbinur said: He would prove her sister was okay, if she behaved. If she would be quiet.

She hung up, and didn’t need to think any further.

On March 2, she told Renagul’s story to a United Nations human rights panel.

“When you lose the most valuable things in your life, what’s left?” she said. “Nothing left. I don’t have any fear anymore.”

Rebecca Tan contributed to this report.

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