This Manitoba couple lived in Xinjiang for 10 years. They can no longer stay silent about what they sawApril 21, 2021
Andrea and her husband Gary, who are both from small towns in Manitoba, had lived in Xinjiang for almost 10 years by that point. They were fluent in Uyghur and Mandarin, and their social group was made up of mostly Uyghur families and “ordinary office workers.”
Andrea said they started seeing less of their friends because of daily flag-raising ceremonies which every Uyghur in their community had to attend, where Muslim women had to take off their head scarves.
“They had never been in public with their hair exposed before, and were covering their faces in shame,” she said.
“There were also daily propaganda meetings at workplaces, and our friends were very tired and had no energy to respond to what was happening.”
One of their friends who worked at a government office was forced to sleep in her office each night. She wasn’t allowed to leave to cook dinner for her son who had returned from boarding school on a holiday.
Then came hushed whispers of people disappearing, being taken to internment camps. The Dycks were the only resident foreigners in the area, and because they were such outsiders, Uyghur friends trusted them with their stories.
“One woman I know had a sister who was taken to a camp because of an international trip she did as a tourist years before. She was the primary caregiver for her elderly parents and sibling’s children. When she was gone, the whole family structure fell apart,” Andrea said.
“We could see one camp from the road we lived on … just 10 minutes down our street.”
The compound was surrounded by walls at least 15 feet high, with security cameras and a single entrance with multiple gates. Razor wire could be seen along the wall surrounding the courtyard.
They estimate that in Turpan’s surrounding farming villages, around a third of farmers were either taken to the camps, or forced to take jobs in other parts of China far away from their families, by mid-2018. Uyghur farmers had made up their customer base for compost sales.
The amount of arrests, Andrea said, caused her teenage son’s friends in Xinjiang to fear turning 18, believing they could be hauled away to a camp for any reason at any time.
Many young men would post photos of themselves smoking or drinking on social media attempting to distance themselves from perceptions about Muslims, she said.
“Just watching those boys be terrified of turning 18 years old was very hard to watch,” Andrea said. “They’re at risk of being taken to camps. And they know it.”
After 10 years of living in the region, opening a business and learning two languages, the Dycks decided to return to Canada.
It wasn’t just the increasing security measures making everyday life a hassle spurring their departure, such as a once five-minute trip to the market now taking 20 minutes; they began to fear they were putting Uyghurs they knew in danger for being associated with foreigners.