(RNS) — Akida Pulat has made it through her last three birthdays and the onset of a pandemic without knowing where her mother is.
This weekend, she will add a third Mother’s Day to the list.
On Mother’s Day, she and a group of Uighur diaspora youth living in the U.S., Turkey, Germany and Norway are asking China to answer one question: Where are our mothers?
Her mother, Rahile Dawut, is a prominent professor and scholar of the Uighur minority, the ethnically Turkic and mostly Muslim population to which her family belongs. Concentrated in China’s northwest Xinjiang region, more than one million Uighurs have been detained in its vast network of camps that have evoked condemnation from U.S. and international officials.
Pulat and other Uighurs suspect their parents have disappeared into this system. In a social media video they plan to publish on Sunday (May 10), she and over half a dozen young Uighurs around the world will demand the release of their mothers.
“Today, we are remembering our mothers currently being held in China’s concentration camps, whom we aren’t able to say ‘Happy Mother’s Day,’” the video says. "Today is supposed to be a day of celebration but for us, it’s another day filled with pain and desperation.”
For Ziba Murat, 34, this is the second Mother’s Day with no news of her mother’s whereabouts.
“What happened to her?” Murat, who also appears in the video and helped coordinate it, asked during an interview with Religion News Service. “Where is she? What is her condition? It’s been 20 months, and we’ve heard nothing from her or about her. Honestly, I’m desperate and I need to know how she is, or if she’s even alive.”
Her mother, Gulshan Abbas, is a retired doctor who has not been heard from since September 11, 2018. Abbas’ sister, prominent Uighur activist and Campaign for Uyghurs Executive Director Rushan Abbas, suspects the disappearance was a punishment for her speaking out against the camps; Gulshan Abbas disappeared six days after the activist denounced the camps at a major conference in Washington, D.C.
“I can’t believe all of a sudden she disappeared like this,” Murat said. “I don’t know why. There are so many questions I can’t get my head around. It’s hard to live this every day. The emotions are overwhelming, especially on a special day like that.”
Last year on the holiday, after months of public silence for fear of spurring retaliation against her mother and other family in Xinjiang, Murat wrote an essay pleading for the world to find her mother. In it, she prayed that her mother would be free to celebrate at home by the next year.
But the months since have only brought two more grandchildren that Abbas has not met, as well as more frustration, unanswered questions and fruitless appeals to the Chinese government for any information on Abbas’ whereabouts or condition.
Now, that anxiety has ratcheted up with the outbreak of the coronavirus, which Uighur family members and human rights advocates fear could spread like wildfire in China’s detention camps. If she were free, Murat pointed out, her mother would be the first to volunteer to be on the front lines assisting infected patients.
Before her disappearance, Murat and her mother would spend their Mother’s Days chatting over video or, when they were in the same country, shopping and spending time together.
“I’m missing those days,” Murat said with a deep sigh. “If she were here, I would take her to the beach so she could enjoy the beautiful weather here in Tampa … we could do a lot of things, but we won’t be able to because China took her away from us.”
The Chinese government, though it first denied the existence of the detention camps, insists that the centers are completely voluntary vocational training institutes in response to terrorism and Islamic extremism in the region.
But leaked documents from within the government, which China claims are “fabricated,” show that Uighurs have been systemically penalized for traveling abroad, speaking Arabic or their native Uighur, and practicing their faith in any way, from growing a beard to praying.
Across social media, Uighurs have begun posting tributes to their mothers, some of whom they say are missing and others whom they avoid contacting for fear of retribution.
"If you have a lovely mother just like mine, do you think telling her happy Mother's Day would be too much to ask?" said Shayida Ali, a Boston-based software engineer who has not spoken to her parents in three years, in a video. "If you are a parent, do you think sending your children abroad is a crime?"
Such videos, young Uighurs say, are an attempt to show the world that their pain and stories are real.
“We are real people, living through this atrocity,” Murat said. “It’s nothing political. We are just the flesh-and-blood living example of what China has done to our family.”
Given the chance, she said, Murat would make sure her mother knows how much she means to her family with a simple message.
“Happy Mother’s Day. You’re the strongest woman I know. Please hang in there. We miss you and love you so much.”