One of the smallest immigrant communities in the United States is that of the Uyghurs –- a Turkic ethnic group whose ancestral home is in northwestern China. Today on New American Voices, Oksana Dragan talks with the president of the Uyghur American Association, which represents the 500 to 1000 Uyghurs living in this country.
Alim Seytoff spent the first 27 years of his life in what the Uyghurs call East Turkistan, a part of China that is also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. He’s been in the United States for seven years now, and says there is one overwhelming difference between life here and there.
“In the United States you can live – if you’re not interested in politics or governmental issues – you can live on your own, without the government, you can do your own thing. As long as you obey the law, the government will not come and bother you. But in China the government is on your head every day, every moment. You are constantly in fear of doing something wrong.”
Mr. Seytoff says the situation was particularly tough for the Muslim and Indo-European Uyghur minority, with its distinct culture and language. Uyghur separatist aspirations have met with strong countermeasures by the Chinese government. In fact, much of the organized activity of Uyghurs in the United States is aimed at calling attention to the abuse of the human, religious and civil rights of their brethren in Xinjiang.
“Our main issue is our concern with what is happening in East Turkistan and how the Chinese government is destroying our culture, our language, our traditions, and oppressing the Uyghur people. We hope that we can be of some help to our brothers and sisters who live in East Turkistan.”
To inform the American public, especially American leaders, about the situation in Xinjiang Province, Alim Seytoff says the Uyghur community has undertaken active lobbying efforts in Washington.
“We go and talk to some of the high-level officials and let them know what’s happening in East Turkistan and how China is violating the human rights of the Uyghur people. Also from time to time we go to Capitol Hill and testify before some committees about the human rights violation situation in East Turkistan. We also protest from time to time in front of the Chinese embassy.”
Most of the Uyghurs living in the United States came to this country in the 1990s. Many immigrated from East Turkistan, but others came from neighboring regions of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Alim Seytoff says the largest group of Uyghurs – about a hundred people – have settled in the Washington, D.C. area, where they gather regularly for New Years’ parties, or to sing Uyghur songs, dance Uyghur dances, and immerse their kids in Uyghur traditions. Some young Uyghurs have volunteered to conduct regular classes to teach children the Uyghur culture and language, supported by parents who worry that their children are quickly becoming Americanized.
“America is definitely a melting pot, and we see the trend, even among the Uyghur community here. Sometimes, because the children grew up here and they feel comfortable speaking English, because they go to school here, and whenever they get together most of them seem to speak in English rather than Uyghur. So we do have a concern that they might be assimilated into American culture and become American, rather than Uyghur. But we try to help them be both, be American at the same time, and be a great Uyghur.”
Alim Seytoff himself came to the United States as a student in 1996. After graduating college with a degree in communications, Mr. Seytoff worked for a few years as an Uyghur-language broadcaster for Radio Free Asia, then left to study international law, which he believes will be useful to him in his desire to help the Uyghur people. Meanwhile, he says, he feels very much at home -- and welcome -- in the United States.
“Here there is not the concept of “foreigner”. Everybody is like an American. They look at everybody the same, whether they’re white or black or Chinese or Japanese -- or Uyghur, or anybody, basically. There’s true equality that you see in this country, that we don’t see in most of the world.”
Mr. Seytoff believes that that same acceptance extends to religions in this country. He says that although the Uyghur community is Muslim, it did not feel any negative backlash after Muslim terrorists attacked the World Trade towers and the Pentagon in September, 2001.
“No no, not at all, not a bit. Actually, some time ago one of my friends in East Turkistan, he called me from East Turkistan, probably because of Chinese propaganda, and he said, ‘Oh, what’s happening with the Uyghurs -- America is harassing you, or putting you in jail, or something?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about!? Muslims are fine, they’re still going to mosques, they are praying, nobody is bothering anybody unless they have, like, an organizational connection with those terrorist groups. Otherwise everybody is free to worship in their own way, do their own job. And Uyghurs, we are doing just fine. Better than you!’”
Alim Seytoff, one of the leaders of the Uyghur community in the United States.
English Feature #7-37929 Broadcast October 13, 2003