Disclaimer: This story is inspired by real-life experiences.
I feel my jaw crack, pain beyond belief, blood rushing to the surface of my skin; collapsing to the ground, hands throbbing with pain as they catch my fall, tarmac pebbles embedding themselves in me, scratches covering my knees and elbows.
“Justice, Justice, Justice” Chanting reverberates between my eardrums, I start to blackout, losing all senses. I remember why I’m here and know that if I could go back, the only thing I would change, is opening that letter sooner…
2 months ago, I got a letter. It was smudged, torn, stained, and crumpled. At first, I thought it was a scam, what else could it be? But for some reason, almost as if there was a higher power guiding me, I couldn’t throw it out. It sat there on my kitchen table for a solid week before I decided to open it. To be honest, I’d forgotten I’d even received a letter. Who sends mail nowadays? I picked it up and saw a faint line of smeared blood across the flap, worried, I rushed to open it. Little did I know, that letter would change my life…
I unfolded the page, the paper crinkled between my fingers. The first thing I noticed was the red ink, I soon made it out to be words, scrambled, hurriedly put on the page, then I read it, my heart dropping more with every word,
I don’t know if anyone is ever going to see this, but I pray to God that someone will. Amannisa has gone to the United States before and she says this is a real address. I hope so…
You are my last hope, whoever you are,
My name is Alfiya Bozan and this is my story,
I am a girl, 15 years old.
I looked away, gasping, oh God, was that a 15-year-old’s blood? My heart started racing. I turned my attention back to the letter and kept reading,
I like soccer and reading. I used to write poetry, back when I saw beauty in the world. My best friend was named Miryam, I haven’t seen her for a long time. I have a younger sister and brother. We used to fight a lot, but I would give anything to see them once more.
You may be wondering why I’m telling you all this, how it pertains to my greater struggle? The fact of the matter is, I need someone to know who I am, I want to be more than just a number, a faceless name, another person erased from the history books. I need you to see my humanity, to know that I am just like you, and yet, you could never imagine the struggles I face, I need you to feel sorry for me, to stand up for me, please, I have no-one else.
Oh God, what have I found?
My name is Alfiya and I am a Uighur Muslim, and once upon a time, I was free.
I could walk through the streets of Xinjiang and greet my family and friends whenever I wished. I had reasons to smile and laugh, I held the potential to one-day birth, my own children, I could speak my language, I was human. Now, I’m not. How can someone take away another’s humanity, you may ask, well, you’ll soon find out.
In 2014, the Chinese government launched the Beauty Project. They started discouraging us from wearing veils and scarves, saying that we should remove them to show off our “pretty”. They don’t understand. We know that we are pretty, we wear the scarf to safeguard ourselves against evils, it’s our protection, it makes us feel safe. That same year my dad had to cut his beard, he looked so plain without it, and we were prohibited from fasting. Don’t they know fasting not only brings us closer to God, but it rejuvenates our humanity, so we remember how less-fortunate people live, and we give charity during this month, how is this an act indicating “extremism”?
In 2017, it got worse. Chinese officials made it legal to discriminate against us, no, that’s too light of a word. The camps. Chinese officials claim that they’re ‘re-education camps’, oh how I wish that’s all they were.
But, surely they must have good reason?
Well, it depends on who you ask. Of course, they think they have good reason, but they aren’t Godly people, they will never understand. There were a couple of troublemakers a few years ago, I think it was a few years ago, there’s no sense of time here, anyways a few troublemakers. They were upset about the way we’re being treated and so, they took an actionable approach, one which goes against our teachings. That doesn’t mean everyone hates the government, that everyone is a ‘threat’. A few people don’t represent everyone. I follow a religion of peace, something the government will never understand. Those troublemakers weren’t peaceful, so they are not followers of my religion.
My dad was sent to the camps in 2017 and the rest of us were sent a few years after. All we did was have an app on our phone, Zapya.
Zapya? What is that? I slid my phone out of my back pocket and swiped it open, fingers leaving streak marks on the cracked screen protector. Zapya- An app that allows file sharing offline. What the hell! How is that bad? I kept reading,
I was alone for a month before Amannisa came. Now we’re best friends, practically family, we’re all we have. If I tell you everything that happens to us, I’m afraid you’ll be too scared to help, but please remember, we’re only children.
Every day we have to go work in dirty, disgusting factories. Before this, my family did well, my father was a professor, my mother didn’t even have to work, and now, I’m reduced to nothing, Amannisa was the same, and so, we soon learned the rules together.
Normally we make clothes, cardigans, and shorts, but recently, we’ve been making, I think they’re called ‘face masks’? They’re being shipped to your country…
Oh, God. I started feeling faint, I knew child labor exists, but at least it provides an income for those families. This girl was doing great, then she was taken… slavery? I look to the face mask hanging on my door, waiting to be worn. I know it’s ridiculous to say, but I started seeing blood all over it. Feeling guilty, I ran to it, yanked it off the knob, and threw it in the trash. It didn’t help anyone, but I was angry, upset, I needed to express my emotions somehow. Although my heart started pounding outside my chest, the only sound I could hear, I kept reading,
Every day is the same, wake up, learn and work. Amannisa and I were fortunate enough to be placed next to each other, you’re not allowed to change your place, EVER. We don’t get much chance to talk, others have been punished for far less, but we’ve created our own language through facial expressions.
Crying means another person has died, coughing means we’re missing home, screaming means we’ve been punished.
I think we’re quite clever with our code!
Oh my God, how is this fair? She’s only 15! She’s just a child! I kept reading,
One day was different though, after a few months, some officers came in and told us to pick a crime from a list. They were all written in Mandarin, but Amannisa and I only knew basic greetings, the lists were filled with words we’d never seen before,
When we looked confused, they started screaming at us, saying what I can only translate as “Choose or stay forever!”, waving their guns around, with no time to spare we both pointed at random words. Then life returned to normal, well not your normal, our normal.
People try to escape, but there’s barbed wire on the fences so it’s always to no avail.
Learning languages is great, I love learning about other cultures, but we’re being forced to forget our own in the process of learning Mandarin,
I actually respect other cultures, something “my” government will never understand.
What have I done to deserve this living hell?
Nothing, nothing, you’ve done nothing. Oh please God, save her! Help her! Free her!
The only light in my life is Amannisa. We are each other’s hope and strength. We receive points every time we lose a piece of our identity, when we’ve disappeared, we’re allowed release.
But I’m more than that. I am more than my struggle. I will not be reduced to nothing and so, I stole a few pages out of a guard's notebook to write this letter. I don’t know if anyone is ever going to receive this if I’ll even be alive by then…
Please, I beg you, help me…
After reading that letter, I felt sick. I went to the bathroom and vomited, acid washing over my teeth, throat throbbing in pain, crying, tears cleaning my face. She’s only 15! What if that was me? I felt selfish for feeling this way, I’m not the one going through it, I have no right. I felt a growing sense of duty, I was responsible for this girl’s life, I had to do something, so I pulled myself together, took the paid leave I’d been saving for years, and threw myself into planning a protest. I can’t remember the last night I slept for more than an hour without waking up in sweats, hearing Alfiya’s voice, pleading with me, begging for my help. I remember the last 3 sentences of the letter,
The only thing I ask of you is to be peaceful. As they say, “Don’t fight fire with fire.” I follow a religion of peace, make that known.
My heart sinks knowing I failed her, today was supposed to be peaceful…
I taste the tang and saltiness of the blood pooling in my mouth. I don’t let it consume me, I fight it, for I know Alfiya and Amannisa need me, I’ll keep fighting till my last breath. I place my hands on the rough ground and push myself up, raise my fist, and continue chanting.