Mustafa Aksu had a bad track record with therapists. Growing up in China, he was bullied by his Han Chinese classmates for being Uyghur. This made him constantly anxious, and his stomach often hurt, so much that sometimes he threw up. A concerned teacher referred him to counseling, but Aksu was skeptical it could help. “I was always waiting for the time when I could go out and live somewhere that I would feel comfortable,” Aksu says. 

In 2017, when news began to emerge of a government crackdown in China targeting Uyghurs and other minority ethnic groups, Aksu was a graduate student in Central Asian Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. In China’s northwestern Xinjiang province, where most Uyghurs live, people were going missing. Police targeted Uyghurs for an ever-expanding list of infractions: growing a beard, throwing a wedding party, having contact with people abroad, including members of their own family.

The news grew worse every month. By the hundreds of thousands, the Communist Party forced Uyghurs into sprawling detention facilities, which it dubbed “vocational training centers” though they better resembled concentration camps. Inside, Uyghurs were subject to all manner of torture and abuse; soon, the number of people interned topped 1 million.

Aksu, in his early 30s, had lived abroad for years at this point—in Istanbul and Dubai, before the US—but always kept in close touch with family back home. A short phone call was 20 minutes. Long calls lasted hours. Now, like most Uyghurs living away from Xinjiang, Aksu was cut off from his parents and siblings entirely. He became depressed and later developed insomnia. All night, he wondered: was his family safe? Throughout 2018, Aksu learned his older brother, uncle, and two cousins had all died in Xinjiang. His anxiety deepened.

Eventually, Aksu sought help from a local therapist. But the first meeting went terribly.

Like too many Americans, the therapist had never heard of “Uyghurs” or “Xinjiang.” Aksu spent most of the session detailing what was going on in China, rather than how it was affecting him. On his second, third, and fourth visits, little improved. “Instead of him listening to me with some compassion, I ended up talking about the Uyghurs, explaining who we are,” Aksu said. “It was very exhausting.”

Aksu tried a second therapist, who was better, but still he felt buried by having to explain his culture and the situation in Xinjiang in such depth. He became discouraged and eventually quit therapy. In 2019, he moved to Washington, DC, hoping for a fresh start. But of course, the sleepless nights followed.

Aksu’s experiences are typical of many in the Uyghur diaspora, both those who left China long ago and who fled more recently to make a new life, away from persecution. Watching from afar as loved ones disappear and a way of life is erased, trauma has set in, sparking a mental health crisis that leaders in the diaspora say is all too apparent. Many, though, are reticent to seek help, or even acknowledge the emotional pain of the past years, leaving the community’s needs both underassessed and unmet. But lately a small group of outspoken Uyghurs is trying to change that. Using social media, they’re starting conversations about grief and mental health and, through telehealth, connecting people across the country with volunteer therapists.

The program, called the Uyghur Wellness Initiative, is still in its infancy; to date, it has paired only a few dozen Uyghurs with mental health professionals. As news from Xinjiang grows worse, however, its creators hope that it will help foster resilience in the diaspora—and provide a lifeline to a community during its darkest hour.

“Uyghur 101”

Rights abuses in Xinjiang have warped every aspect of Uyghur life. Thousands of mosques have been destroyed. The Uyghur language is banned in schools. Many thousands have been pressed into forced labor. The camps likely represent the largest mass incarceration of an ethnic group since the Holocaust, and recently, the governments of the US, Canada, the Netherlands, and the UK formally labeled China’s actions “genocide.”

For the Uyghur diaspora—which, in the US, is centered in DC and Northern Virginia—the past few years have been excruciating. Virtually everyone has family or close friends who have been sent to the camps. If they were to return to China, they too would surely be taken captive.

At first, the psychological toll of the Xinjiang crisis was not deeply considered among the diaspora, says Rushan Abbas, director of the DC-based advocacy group Campaign For Uyghurs. For one thing, many felt that they weren’t the ones in danger and had little right to dwell on how the crisis was affecting them. Furthermore, Uyghur culture doesn’t emphasize mental health as such, Abbas says, and talking about it can carry significant social stigma

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By: Andrew McCormick
Title: Uyghurs outside China are traumatized. Now they’re starting to talk about it
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Published Date: Wed, 16 Jun 2021 08:26:17 +0000

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