Thursday

21st Jan 2021

Interview

Antwerp's Uigher refugee from China: where's my family?

  • Nurehmet Burhan is asking the international community to help find his father (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Twenty-seven year old Nurehmet Burhan has never seen his youngest child, whom he suspects has been put into a Chinese state orphanage for Uighur children.

"I miss my children very much. I cannot help them. I cannot take care of them and sometimes I want to commit suicide because I feel very lonely," he told EUobserver, in an interview on 10 July.

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Burhan is a Uighur refugee, recently granted asylum status in Belgium, and who now lives in the largely-immigrant district of the port city of Antwerp.

In his tidy one-room studio apartment, he speaks of a family life that has vanished following moves by the Chinese communist government to intern well over one million Uighur in so-called 're-education camps'.

Burhan has two boys, the oldest is five and the youngest is three. The absence of family photos on the sparse apartment walls is conspicuous.

"I didn't see my new-born and I don't have a photo. I didn't see him in a video. I don't know what he looks like," he says.

"I learned through someone else that his name is Abdul Waris."

In Antwerp, he says he gets to see children walking with their parents or at the playground.

"They are very lucky to be together with their parents. But for me it didn't happen," he says.

Burhan was born and raised in the Korla, a county-level city in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region's (XUAR) Bayin'gholin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture.

Crackdown in Egypt - escape to Europe

In 2016, he left for Egypt to pursue Islamic studies at the Al-Azhar University in Egypt's capital, Cairo.

Before leaving, he had been able to secure a passport and was supported by his father, a local imam of the mosque in his home village of Tekche. It was his first time out of the country.

Then in July 2017, Egyptian authorities started arresting Uighur students of the mostly Muslim-Turkic minority.

China is said to behind the crackdown. It is also one of Egypt's largest investors.

Trade between the two reached historic highs of over €12bn in the year leading up to the arrests. Egypt and China had also signed a security memorandum focusing on "combatting terrorism" some three weeks before the arrests.

Burhan was among those detained.

"I know that most of the Uighurs that returned to China disappeared at the airport with no news from them," he said.

His own father asked him to return as well. But a week later told him remain behind, fearing for his own life.

Burhan says he had been taken to the airport by the Egyptian authorities, along with 96 other Uighurs.

"We were arrested in Cairo," he said. Sixteen were deported, some agreed to go, while others were allowed to stay behind.

"We had a legal temporary residency permits and I was one of those released inside the Egyptian territory," he says.

He then left Egypt in October 2017 and flew to Istanbul where he spent almost two years. In September 2019, he decided to flee to Europe.

He bought himself a one way ticket to Beijing with a flyover in Morocco and a transfer in Belgium.

When he arrived at the airport in Brussels, he never boarded the final leg of his journey to China.

"I am free here, I can live here," he said, where he is studying Flemish. He has also passed the Belgium orientation programme.

But he constantly worries about his family. He has no news about his wife or his mother or from his younger brother and sister.

"In July 2017, my father was taken to the camp but which camp, where, I have no idea about that," he says.

He believes his two sons may have been taken to a so-called Little Angel School in China.

Thousands of Uighur children, separated from their parents, are held there.

"As a person who has a Belgium residency permit, I want to ask help from the international community, human rights organisations, UN human rights committee, to help me find my father," he said.

The last time he spoke to his family was in May of 2017.

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