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Everyone has some stories to tell in their life, and so do I. Growing up in communist China as a Uighur citizen, I witnessed how a political system impacts one’s choices and how a social transformation brings changes to an individual’s thinking about life, fate, society, and the world.
Comparing what is happening to Uighurs now with that of the 1980s and early 1990s, I am convinced that those decades were the best time for Uighur people in the so-called “Uighur Autonomous Region” under communist Chinese rule. China at the time was led by relatively liberal communist leaders who took a bold step to usher the nation into a new era: an era in which China was introduced to the world, and the world, in turn, started to find out more about this ancient, mysterious, and in some sense, contemporary China.
These reforms also let individual Chinese citizens have more free thought, ambition, and colorful ideas, which was a sharp deviation from orthodox communist ideology. Like millions of youths in China at the time, Uighur youth like me began to learn English, listened to foreign music, and planted the seeds of freedom in our hearts. Basically, we longed for the freedom that would enable us to have a life we would love to live.
It was only in my college years that I started to learn English by myself. I remember listening to foreign music and songs like Paul Simon’s “The Sound of Silence.” I was so fond of this song that I learned its lyrics by heart — “People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening.” Reciting those helped me to improve my English skills and motivated me to use my time to fight for personal freedom.
My investment in learning English paid off well. I moved to Boston to study at Northeastern University, the access to scholarship made possible by my new language acquisition. And then, like generations of immigrants before me, I settled in this great city and made it my home. Almost two decades have passed since then, and so many things have changed.
My fate has changed for the better, but my people’s fate has changed for the worse. It has probably reached the nadir in their history.
China has built concentration camps for Uighur, Kazakh, and Kyrgyz people since 2017 and detained as many as a million of them, sentencing their scholars, entrepreneurs, and community leaders to lengthy jail terms using various trumped-up charges and sham trials. The Chinese government’s collective oppression of these people has reached an unbearable point, and Uighurs abroad like me have been left to anguish. To our dismay, the world seemingly descended into silence. Uighurs cried for help, but the world turned deaf — everywhere we looked at, there was a silence, a dreadful silence.
It was then I rediscovered the value of that song — The Sound of Silence. More than half a century after this song was written, humankind is still unable to love each other. This reality manifests itself as the Chinese government commits mass atrocities against Uighurs. Few international or religious organizations said anything substantial. The very countries that Uighur citizens traveled to fell into virtual silence when China began to imprison those same people upon their return to China.
Looking at this vicious tragedy that my people are facing, out of hopelessness and helplessness, I murmur these lines from the song sometimes:
“No one dared disturb the sound of silence. Fools, said I, You do not know, Silence like a cancer grows.”
I don’t know how many times I’ve sung this song, which was widely popular among Harvard students in the 1960s, while I was trying to find some comfort — somehow, I felt like Paul Simon sang this song for Uighurs.
However, I have noticed some beautiful souls at Harvard started to break that silence in the past two years.
I want to thank Harvard University President Lawrence S. Bacow for reminding China that Harvard has not forgotten Uighurs by reading the late Abdurehim Ötkür’s poem when visiting Beijing in March 2019. I want to thank Harvardians like Joshua L. Freeman, who has courageously and genuinely written about his concern for Uighurs’ fate, which he knows well. I want to thank Ambassador Samantha J. Power, a Harvard Law School graduate, for speaking up for Uighurs. I want to thank the 70 Harvard student organizations that stood up for Ekpar Asat. And I want to thank the countless unsung heroes at Harvard who are championing Uighur freedom.
When I think of the voices that have come out from Harvard, I am proud and convinced that a motto of our country, “E Pluribus Unum,” was engraved in the Harvard spirit. That spirit urges people to act when there are injustices, even if they are in far-flung corners of the forgotten world — and this deserves my gratitude.
Kaiser Mejit is a graduate of the T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
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