Maryem Abdulhamid, 47, is a mother of four children. She fled Xinjiang and came to Istanbul in 2016 with only two of her children at the time. Meryam was pregnant with her fourth child when she decided to leave Xinjiang, fearing that she would be persecuted by Chinese authorities for having another child. Abdulhamid’s third daughter, Rizwangul, was just 12 years old the last time she saw her and was left in the care of her husband back in 2016.
“The main reason that we could not take my daughter to Turkey was because she was not given a passport at the time,” Abdulhamid said. “We have never committed any crimes or never had a criminal record and we were positive that now that she had her Turkish passport they would let me reunite with her and her siblings but they [the Chinese authorities] have not done this for the last four years.”
The last time she spoke to her daughter Rizwangul was on a brief phone call in 2017, when she managed to get through to their family cell phone. Abdulhamid described her daughter’s words as being, “Where is my father? I am alone here with no one to look after me.”
It was later discovered through relatives that Abdulhamid’s husband has been taken to a concentration camp in Xinjiang, leaving her daughter with no one to look after her. The reason for his arrest? He had helped his wife and two children go to Istanbul and was being punished unjustly for that.
Abdulhamid’s daughter told her mother, “Other relatives were not able to look after me due to the government’s involvement and strict surveillance. Please help me.”
That was last time that she heard her daughter’s fearful voice; Abdulhamid has not been able to contact her since. It has now been four years and she still dreams of one day reuniting with her daughter.
An estimated 1.5 million Uyghurs have been detained in concentration camps, separated from their loved ones. Others have escaped but had to leave family members behind, including young children. Many of their stories are similar to Abdulhamid’s: they were able to travel abroad during a brief window of opportunity in 2016, but couldn’t get passports for their children immediately. They left China, thinking they would arrange the paperwork and reunite their families. But the window slammed shut, and now many mothers and fathers have no idea where their children are today, or who is taking care of them.
“I can’t describe in words how I feel as a mother who is not even able to see my daughter. I have been so heartbroken as the children who are with me are not only forcibly separated from their father but also their sister. My youngest child has never even seen her father before.”
Abdulhamid broke down and took a moment to collect herself before saying, “I would have committed suicide if it wasn’t for my faith in God and children who are with me. My heart aches, it is unbearable thinking that my child is not here with me and I cannot get her back.”
Abdulhamid describes not being able to sleep a single night since she has been away from her daughter and the devastating mental impact it has had on her life. “I have been suicidal for years and years thinking about the injustice,” she said. “There is no sadness that can be compared to a parent who loses a child.”
The emotional heartache that Abdulhamid is experiencing has heightened in recent days after feeling that her voice, and those of other Uyghur parents, has gone unheard.
“I would rather my child would not be alive than be under the oppression of China. No mother would ever want their child to not be alive, but our suffering has been so severe that I cannot bear the thought of my daughter suffering, alone or in a concentration camp.”
“Some of the other mothers I know have seen their children on a Chinese social media site crying and looking sad,” she added. “It is affecting them mentally seeing this because they cannot reach out and hug them, they cannot tell them that they are still alive and that they have a mother who so desperately wants to reunite with them.”
Maimatimin Buweiamina, 30, has a similar lived experience. In her first time speaking to the media, she told The Diplomat that she has had enough of being silent and wants to speak out in the hope that she could one day reunite with her children.
“I have five children, but three of them are missing in Xinjiang and two of them are with me,” she said.
Her story begins with a visit to Turkey back in 2016, a time when she said the Chinese government had eased its policies on issuing passports to the Uyghur community.
Buweiamina described how she was unable to bring three of her children, who were aged four, six, and eight, to Turkey as she was unable to get passports for them in time. She left them with elderly relatives. After a week in Turkey her husband decided to go back to Xinjiang to see if he could get passports for their three other children, but he was arrested at the airport and imprisoned for 15 years for the supposed crime of traveling abroad.
Buweiamina said she hasn’t been able to get in contact with her three children or any of her family members in Xinjiang since her husband was detained.
“Until now we haven’t spoken about our plight because we had a hope that we would be reunited as a family, as we thought the Chinese government would eventually allow us to reunite, but that hasn’t happened.”
She has fond memories of the time spent with her children and tearfully showed me a photo of one of her children, her daughter Fetime.
“I can’t describe how much pain I am in. I haven’t seen my three children for five years. Where is the humanity? All us mothers wonder whether the rest of the world understands the severity of our situation,” Buweiamina said.
“What would it take for people to act – do we have to kill ourselves? I would rather die for my children than go through this suffering. I have never seen my children, not even on Chinese state social media, since we lost contact. I don’t know what has happened to them or what their situation is and that is what’s killing me the most.”
She broke down as she added: “I don’t know if my children are dead or alive.”
Sudanisa Abdulhamit, 42, is a Uyghur mother of seven who fled Xinjiang. She reveals that the crackdown against Uyghur Muslims was being felt as far back as 2014, when her own husband was imprisoned for being an imam who was teaching the Quran at a mosque in Xinjiang.