Uyghur children forget native tongue in Chinese boarding school, leave malnourished and traumatized

Children learn values and emotions like love, happiness, trust, compassion, and sharing primarily in their families.

Image by Pixabay



Based on speech by Elfidar Iltebir  

(at a panel titled “Government Boarding Schools as a Tool of Genocide in the 21st Century”  co-hosted by the Uyghur Human Rights Project, Uyghur American Association, Tibet Action Institute, Uyghur Wellness Initiative, Peace Catalyst, Silk Road Peace Project, and Campaign for Uyghurs.




Children learn values and emotions like love, happiness, trust, compassion, and sharing primarily in their families. Their identity character building begins to form. Sadly, because of the genocidal CCP policies, Uyghur children in East Turkistan are being forced to live and grow without these principles.


The Chinese government operates mandatory boarding schools for Uyghur children and other minorities like Uzbeks and Kazakhs. China’s systematic policy of separating Uyghur children from their families affects an estimated 900,000 children, as we know from a report by Adrian Zenz and others.


When the news about the camps began to make international headlines in 2017 (though in reality, the camps started in 2015/2016, the public only heard of them in 2017). Uyghurs in exile suddenly started to receive news of family members detained in these camps. 


Especially as a mother, I worried for the children who were left behind. “What would happen to those kids?”. China has taken millions of men and women, the backbone of our nation, into concentration camps: the young and old, students and teachers, scholars, artists, journalists, writers, and doctors. Their disappearance has torn away the fabric of Uyghur society.


Then we heard that they had stolen our children, too, into camps under a different label: state-run kindergartens, boarding schools, and orphanages. The government agencies removed Uyghur children from their family environment into strange facilities run by the state to destroy them. It forced them away from the love and happiness they grew up with. 


They took away their family bonds, identity, religion, culture, and their entire world. Uyghur children are being engineered into loyal subjects of the CCP instead. China intends to strip Uyghur children of their hope, faith, and the soul of our people. They are destroying our past, present, and future.


Year after year, Uyghur children will grow up in boarding schools, chanting CCP slogans while their parents are forced to do the same in the concentration camps and forced labour factories. These kids will one day graduate from and outgrow these schools, but they will not be Uyghur anymore. Having been forcefully removed away from their families into mandatory boarding schools can leave them to face life-long psychological issues. 


Let’s discuss some of the evidence. Uyghur writer, Abduweli Ayup, interviewed several Uyghur children who had been in Chinese boarding schools. One of those interviewed was a family in Istanbul, that Emily Feng of NPR reported about. The Kuçar family had visited Urumqi but were Turkish citizens (the father and the children). They lived in Istanbul, Turkey but visited Urumqi in 2015. There, however, their passports were confiscated. The father’s passport was eventually returned and he was deported to Turkey. However, the mother was taken to a concentration camp in 2018. 


Their daughter Aysu, who is six, and son Lutfulla, 4 were forcibly separated from their family and relatives. The siblings were sent to two different boarding schools. They spent nearly twenty months there, and eventually, due to their Turkish citizenship and their father’s hard work, the children were released. 


However, by the time they were able to return home to Turkey in December 2019, leaving their mom in a concentration camp in Ghulja, they had become malnourished and traumatized and had many other issues. Both had iron and calcium deficiency and had forgotten how to speak their mother tongue, Uyghur, and Turkish, which they had learned before. 


According to the children, when they were in boarding school, their heads were shaved. The teachers and the older students that were class and dorm monitors frequently hit them, locked them in a dark room in the basement of the building, and forced them to stay in stress positions as a punishment, if they had refused to follow the orders, such as quickly learn the Chinese, or if they had spoken in Uyghur or just spoke without permission. 


For both of these children, the mental trauma has taken years to heal while they have received psychiatric help in Turkey. For months, Lutfulla hid if guests came over, and they asked for permission from their father to go to the bathroom or to eat. The siblings were having frequent nightmares: kicking the sides of the bed and screaming and yelling: “I will not do that!”. Even now, they keep the lights on in their bedrooms at night. 


The Kuçar family is lucky because the father was reunited with his two children, even though the children may not see their mother again. Other parents find their kids in Chinese propaganda videos shared on social media, but they can never see them in person. 


Another example is an award-winning journalist Guljera Hoja from RFA, who interviewed parents who recognized their children from Chinese propaganda videos shared on Douyin (Chinese version of TikTok). 


Abdurahman, his wife Halima, and the family returned to Aksu in 2016 to seek child care from her parents. Afterward, Abdurahman learned that the authorities had sentenced his wife to prison. There was no news about the three children. Unexpectedly, Abdurahman saw his son on a Chinese propaganda video shared online. He said he had never cried so much in his entire life because he was helpless and could not do anything to help his children and his wife. 


These are just some of the thousands of stories of Uyghur parents whose children are stuck back home. The parents live under survivors’ guilt and fear that their children are not with their grandparents but in Chinese boarding schools, turning into robotic Han Chinese that will not recognize their parents one day. 


The lives and the future of our children are at stake; So is the existence of the Uyghur people. China intends to destroy Uyghur children and strip them of their hope, faith, and the soul of our people. Uyghurs in the diaspora are very concerned about the future, too. 


Since our children cannot study or maintain their culture in East Turkistan, we (the Uyghurs in diaspora) are doing our best to keep our identity wherever we go while adjusting to the culture of our host country. 


In France, Turkey, and the USA, we have established Uyghur schools to teach our children the Uyghur language, our culture, and our religion. In the Uyghur center in Virginia, and the one in California, our educators (often the parents) do their best with limited resources to offer classes for children born in the US. The students can learn things that Uyghur children cannot study back home in East Turkistan. We try to organize holidays, book events to learn our history, and services to Uyghur children to know who they are and where they have come from. 




About the speaker:


Elfidar Iltebir | President of Uyghur American Association

Elfidar was born in Urumchi, East Turkistan and grew up in Istanbul, Turkey until immigrating to the U.S. in 2000. She has a BA in Marketing from George Mason University and over twenty years of marketing and project management experience.








Anne Kader

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