Henrico couple hails from persecuted region
It’s not often that someone who begins her career as a laundress ends up rising to international fame, but on Jan. 16, such a person came to Richmond for the First Freedom Awards gala.
Sponsored by the First Freedom Center and held at the Richmond Marriott, the annual awards ceremony honored four renowned advocates of religious freedom. Human-rights activist Rebiya Kadeer, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006, received the International First Freedom Award for her efforts on behalf of Chinese minorities and her leadership in the Uyghur self-determination movement.
An exiled Uyghur [pronounced WEE-gur] from the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Kadeer rose from humble beginnings to create an import/export empire, and now heads the World Uyghur Congress. For her efforts to end economic and cultural discrimination against Chinese Uyghurs, she spent six years in prison.
Among the Kadeer admirers attending the gala were Henrico residents Abdullin and Tursunay Rozieva Ababekri, the Richmond region’s only Uyghur immigrants.
The occasion was a reunion of sorts, since Abdullin Ababekri met Kadeer 30 years ago in their homeland of China. But Ababekri eventually left China for Uzbekistan – for the same reason that many Uyghurs leave.
“The Uyghur people are not free in China,” Ababekri’s wife, Tursunay, explained to her dinner companions at the gala. “Even if you finish college, the very good jobs, you don’t get. The Chinese do.”
Another common practice of the Chinese is to recruit groups of young Uyghur girls for employment, who then end up having to sell themselves to survive.
“The Chinese,” said Tursunay, “are destroying the Uyghur people in all different ways.”
In her acceptance speech, Kadeer used a translator to elaborate on the types of religious and cultural discrimination Uyghurs face, in addition to economic.
“China will hunt you down and persecute you and your family,” said Kadeer, whose two imprisoned sons are currently serving seven- and nine-year sentences in the PRC. “The Uyghur Muslims face the harshest [discrimination] because of their faith in Islam. [The Chinese] turn mosques into pig farms; they indoctrinate youth that religion is poison.”
The events of Sept. 11, 2001 only intensified the hostility of the Chinese toward Uyghur Muslims, added Kadeer, even though she described the Uyghurs as moderate Sunni Muslims.
“They used 9/11 to further justify their oppression. China is an equal opportunity oppressor of all religions,” she said, expressing contempt for the “bankrupt ideology” of the Chinese and their worship of power and money. “Religious freedom exists only on paper. “
Although Kadeer was once invited by the Chinese government to join both the National People’s Congress and the Political Consultative Congress, and in 1995 was a member of China’s delegation to the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women, she was stripped of her memberships and imprisoned after trying to meet with a visiting delegation from the United States.
After six years – two of them in solitary confinement – she was released due to international pressure. Today she lives in the United States, and is the author of Dragon Fighter: One Woman’s Epic Struggle for Peace with China and frequent op-ed essays.
Dream come true
Tursunay Ababekri’s parents moved to Russia in 1962. In China, her mother’s family had been fairly well-off, she said; but family members were revolutionaries who resisted the Chinese.
“The Chinese were trying to destroy them,” said Tursunay. “My mother’s family, they left everything, took the children to Russia and started over.”
Abdullin and Tursunay Ababekri married in 1991, and although life was better than in China, Abdullin thought often of moving to the United States.
“He had friends [in the States] who called,” Tursunay said. “They kept telling him if he came, it would be good for his kids’ future.”
Eventually, Abdullin made his way to the U.S.; Tursunay stayed with the children for awhile and later joined him. Today, their four children are 20, 19, 14 and four and attend George Mason University, James Madison University, Godwin High School, and preschool.
Although her children like living here in the States, Tursunay admitted to some homesickness.
“Here there is more freedom; it is easy to find a job,” she pointed out. “But life is more stressful.”
“We grew up in a very different atmosphere,” Tursunay went on. “All the relatives are not here; it is just us two. I miss my parents; the kids miss their grandparents. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like it here.”
Abdullin’s mother, mother-in-law, stepmother, three sisters and brother are all still in China, said Tursunay.
“But he wished all his life to go someplace like the United States,” Tursunay said of her husband. “So his dream came true.”
And she had to admit, said Tursunay, that hearing from Rebiya Kadeer and seeing her receive an international award was inspiring.
As for Kadeer, she found the celebration of National Religious Freedom Day with her new friends from the First Freedom Center to be nothing short of invigorating.
“I cannot agree more with the purpose of this center,” she exclaimed to the audience, noting that she sometimes gets “lonely and a little bit hopeless” in her struggles to raise awareness of the plight of Chinese minorities.
“When I get to a place like [this] and see the smiling faces of all religions,” she said, “I get inspired and strengthened to stand up against the tyranny. I get energized and ready to fight again for freedom!”
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