Barnet residents call for action to tackle Uyghur persecution
Barnet residents are calling for further action to tackle the persecution of the Uyghur people - following steps taken earlier this week.
On Monday 22nd March the European Union, the United Kingdom and the United States approved the imposition of sanctions on four Chinese officials involved in the running of camps that have detained ethnic minority Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, Northwestern China. Last night, China retaliated by sanctioning five Conservative MPs and two peers.
Since 2017, the Chinese government has intensified repressive measures against religious and cultural expression in Xinjiang. Amnesty International reports that more than one million Uyghurs have been forced into internment camps disguised as “re-education” centres where their native Uyghur language is banned in favour of Mandarin and they are prevented from practising Islam, the predominant religion amongst Uyghurs. There are also accusations of forced labour, rape, torture and the sterilisation of women as a tactic to shrink the population. Human rights groups see this as a campaign of regimented conformity that could destroy Uyghur's unique cultural identity.
I spoke to Uyghurs working in Barnet to understand how they are protecting their culture in Britain.
I meet Mukaddes Yadigar in Childs Hill at Etles, the restaurant she owns with her husband Ablikim Rahman. Traditional instruments, clothing and paintings hang on the walls, a testament to the survival of the Uyghur culture in exile. For Mukaddes, the task of memorialising her home is urgent now that there are “political problems” in her region. She says:
“My protest is with my restaurant. I hope to introduce our people, introduce our culture [and] my food.”
Etles’ menu is a diverse mix of kebab and hand-pulled noodles, reflecting a cuisine shaped by its proximity to Central Asia. Mukaddes and Ablikim have built a space where Uyghur culture can thrive, but this effort has been halted by the onslaught of Covid-19. Mukaddes opened her first restaurant in Walthamstow in 2017. The newest branch opened in December 2019, just three months before the Covid-19 virus became a national emergency and all restaurants in the country were forced to close.
Sitting still, her restaurant shuttered, Mukaddes says that she has felt the “psychological” implications of the pandemic, all she can do now is “wait to open again”.
In Walthamstow, Etles is popular, now busy serving up takeaways to East Londoners craving their notorious Leghmen - a dish of hand-pulled noodles, peppery sauce and meat. Finchley remains closed, having barely had the opportunity to establish a local following. Still, Mukaddes is hopeful that in the future they will host weekly cultural nights, giving a platform to Uyghur performers.
The international struggle for Uyghur rights has caught the attention of local groups and charities in the borough of Barnet. Particularly Jewish residents who feel that the events in Xinjiang speak directly to the Jewish experience of persecution.
Andrew (surname withheld), a resident in Barnet, campaigns weekly outside the Volkswagen showroom on the North Circular Road. Volkswagen has been criticised for continuing to operate out of Xinjiang, manufacturing in factories said to use forced labour.
For Andrew, the German car manufacturer is making a cyclical return to its origin stories. He explains that, founded in 1930s Germany by the ruling Nazi party, Volkswagen used forced labour from concentration camps to build many of their cars.
On a sunny afternoon in March, he stands a lone figure against the rush hour traffic, holding two signs: “3 million Muslims in Chinese concentration camps” and “Hoot”. Andrew tells me there is plenty of support from passing cars. Peering into the windows of the colossal trucks trundling down the motorway I see drivers turning to look before honking.
Andrew is reticent to describe Uyghur persecution as a “cultural genocide” when “women and children are being imprisoned”. He is also keen to emphasise that as a businessman, unlike some other campaigners, he does not support Uyghur separatism. Instead, in his campaign No Concentration Camps he wants to evoke parallels to the Jewish experience of the Holocaust. Saying that his wife’s mother narrowly missed her parents’ fate in the camps.
Before the lockdown, he never stood alone. His message has resonated with people from all faiths who attended the weekly protest he led outside of the Chinese Cultural Embassy in Hampstead.
Although the vote to penalise individual Chinese officials might feel like a win, campaigners are still calling on further action.
Mia Hasenson-Gross is the director of René Cassin, a human rights organisation operating in Finchley to “promote and protect universal human rights, drawing on Jewish experience and value”. To Mia, universal lessons can be taken from the persecution of Jews in modern Europe. She reminds me that the UN definition of genocide was informed by the Holocaust. Thinking of this, René Cassin frames speaking up against persecution as a “moral imperative” for Jewish people.
This Passover (27th March - 4th April) René Cassin hopes to mobilise more Jewish households across the borough and around the country to write letters to MPs asking the UK government to set up an independent review into the events in Xinjiang and recognise the atrocities against Uyghurs as a genocide.
Mining Jewish history there are further parallels to the Uyghur struggle. Over 500 years ago, Sephardic Jews called the Iberian peninsula their home. Cast out during the Inquisition and forced to scatter, much of the history of Sephardic Jewry has been lost. Now Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews, might be at risk of extinction. Over hundreds of years in the diaspora time erodes the contours of a culture and little is left for future generations. Uyghurs in Britain could risk a similar fate.
Living in London, Mukaddes might not be able to prevent the slow march to assimilation, but for now, teaching her children the Uyghur language at home and celebrating Uyghur food in her restaurant, she declares ‘we exist’.
This Passover René Cassin is hosting a Uyghur week of action.
Starting with a #MakeThisSederDifferent campaign.
They are encouraging everyone to include ethically-sourced cotton and yellow raisins on their Seder Plate. And have developed a Seder resource to accompany any Haggadah with information, Mah Nishtana questions, Uyghur specific 10 plagues and thought-provoking topics for conversation.
Visit their website to find out more about the week of action and how you can get involved.
Photo credits: Julian Zerressen
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