A Collection of Visual Stories

By Yi Xiaocuo

Oct 23, 2020

L is one of a handful of friends of mine from Xinjiang in this beautiful western city. We share food, memories, common languages, and cultural etiquette we grew up learning. Now we are both struggling to take root in North America while part of us — our former lives back home — seem to be completely cut and lost in another world.

On a sunny afternoon L suddenly called me crying, saying that she was going back because her father was in critical condition. I immediately tensed up. Through my intensive research and keeping up with the terrible news on Xinjiang, I knew what returning home meant for Uyghurs and Kazakhs. I felt extremely sad and told her it was a big decision. The stakes were too high. I couldn’t sleep that night, too busy thinking about L’s decision.

The next day before she headed to the airport, we met again and I made pilaf for her. During the day, I had frantically consulted all my expert friends and colleagues watching Xinjiang and everybody warned against returning at this moment. I felt an urge to stop L from going, even if this meant I was standing between her and her family. I could not imagine my regret if anything happened to her once she landed in China. I could not accept that she could just disappear. I could not stop telling her everything I read and knew. I almost started to hate myself.

She cried. I felt powerless. We had pilaf and hugged tightly one more time. She left for the airport and disappeared into the dark night.

It’s said that absence makes the heart grow fonder but, what if it just makes it feel emptier? Anyone who has lost someone they love can relate to this feeling. However, what if they just disappeared? Lacking information and holding on to memories from years past, Uyghur, Kazakh, and other minority groups in Xinjiang face this reality. Arresting people for minor violations of arbitrary laws has become commonplace in Xinjiang. Leaders cite religious extremism as the cause for arrest, often with little to no evidence to support the claim. Leaving families with few answers as to why their father or wife or brother went missing. This presents people with the tragic choice: to leave for their freedom or stay risking imprisonment. Each choice bares repercussions.

I stayed up that night waiting for L’s last message before she boarded the plane. She was so torn between her father and my painful persuasion. It felt like Russian Roulette, a life or death gamble…

Eventually she didn’t have the strength to board the plane. Watching the Han Chinese passengers waiting at the gate and China Airlines staff checking their documents one by one, suddenly everything became extremely real and scary. It reminded her of the feeling of being Othered in China. She jumped up and fled the airport instantly.

The following is a collection of visual stories from Uyghur artists who have relocated to the United States. These stories explore new beginnings with the constant pain of the past still lingering. Like L and me, they also experience the forever looming fear of not returning home to see their families, or worse, have already lost touch with their families since 2017. We try not to think too much about this in our everyday lives in North America but it has become constant background music in our heads.

“What is the hardest part about being separated from your family in Xinjiang? I’ve lost connection with my family members in back home Uyghur region since Feb 23rd 2018. I’ve heard my father has been detained since December 2017. China has forcibly cut my connection with my family members because I asked about my father. The hardest part of this is I have still no information about his well being until now.”

Created by BS

As of October 2020, it is reported that one in ten Uyghurs in Xinjiang have been extrajudicially detained in camps. This leaves children wondering when they will see their parents again.

“The Chinese government is cutting off my ties with my family and my lineage. It is up to me to piece together my ancestry because of the records of my family and history have been lost.”

Created by DH

Cultural destruction is a tool that the Chinese government is using to continually push the erasure of minority groups in Xinjiang. The Xinjiang Data Project estimates that between 2017 to 2020 over 900 cultural heritage sites have been desecrated.

“My dream!

I’ve been waiting and waiting to go back home. One day I will go and enjoy the freedom.”

Created by EI

Freedom becomes an allusive idea when your people and culture face ongoing erasure. Many people are left with the impossible choice of whether or not to leave Xinjiang. Abdurehim Imin Parach shares what life is like for Uyghurs living in exile. For even those who manage to escape, fear of constant surveillance and concerns about the safety of family members in Xinjiang remains ever-present.

“Being a Uyghur today…”

Created by GH

Even Uyghurs and Kazakhs living away from China, there is still a constant pull to their homeland. For Uyghurs in Turkey, there are always thoughts about the people left behind. As resilient people, they try to forge their way in a different country while still advocating for those who have not made it out.

“In China, Uyghur people in camps have no freedom, no rights, no strengths to talk back”

Created by KS

It is estimated that there are currently over 380 detention facilities in Xinjiang, with the number steadily growing. Oftentimes these facilities employ low-wage workers to police incarcerated populations with extensive surveillance networks both in and outside of the camps.

“Being Uyghur

Growing up in America, I’ve always considered myself an American with Uyghur heritage where being Uyghur will always be part of my identity within me no matter how American I try to be. However, the crisis in China is slowly trying to rob our identity as Uyghurs, resembling the dark veins attempting to contaminate my Uyghur identity.”

Created by MA

As the Uyghur diaspora continues the networks are beginning to grow. The Dutch Uyghur Human Rights Foundation and the World Uyghur Congress represent examples of leveraging community knowledge to create awareness of the ongoing human rights crisis.

“The Uyghur crisis has impacted me in many ways. As an Uyghur, on the outside living in the USA, land of the free, there is this constant dichotomy of feelings. During the day, we live in a free world, raising our families and working full time living the American dream. But any time we are alone we are thinking about the Uyghur crisis and what our family in Xinjiang is going through day to day. There is this constant balance of living your everyday life and being completely hopeless and sad and trapped. There is a bit of survivor’s guilt as well. Every day I live with balancing those.”

Created by SK

We can only have hope that one day we all can find a way back together.


Camp Album thanks Remy Hellstern for research assistance in this post.

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