ISTANBUL (AP) — Every morning, Meripet wakes up to her nightmare: The Chinese government has turned four of her children into orphans, even though she and their father are alive.
Meripet and her husband left the kids with their grandmother at home in China when they went to nurse Meripet’s sick father in Turkey. But after Chinese authorities started locking up thousands of their fellow ethnic Uighurs for alleged subversive crimes such as travel abroad, a visit became exile.
Then, her mother-in-law was also taken prisoner, and Meripet learned from a friend that her 3- to 8-year-olds had been placed in a de facto orphanage in the Xinjiang region, under the care of the state that broke up her family.
“It’s like my kids are in jail,” Meripet said, her voice cracking. “My four children are separated from me and living like orphans.”
Meripet’s family is among tens of thousands swept up in President Xi Jinping’s campaign to subdue a sometimes restive region, including the internment of more than one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities that has alarmed a United Nations panel and the U.S. government . Now there is evidence that the government is placing the children of detainees and exiles into dozens of orphanages across Xinjiang.
The orphanages are the latest example of how China is systematically distancing young Muslims in Xinjiang from their families and culture, The Associated Press has found through interviews with 15 Muslims and a review of procurement documents. The government has been building thousands of so-called “bilingual” schools, where minority children are taught in Mandarin and penalized for speaking in their native tongues. Some of these are boarding schools, which Uighurs say can be mandatory for children and, in a Kazakh family’s case, start from the age of five.
China says the orphanages help disadvantaged children, and denies the existence of internment camps for their parents. It prides itself on investing millions of yuan in education in Xinjiang to steer people out of poverty and away from terrorism. At a regular press briefing Thursday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the measures taken in Xinjiang were necessary for “stability, development, harmony” and to fight ethnic separatists.
But Uighurs fear that these measures are essentially wiping out their ethnic identity, one child at a time. Experts say what China is doing echoes how white colonialists in the U.S., Canada and Australia treated indigenous children — policies that have left generations traumatized.
“This is an ethnic group whose knowledge base is being erased,” said Darren Byler, a researcher of Uighur culture at University of Washington. “What we’re looking at is something like a settler colonial situation where an entire generation is lost.”
For Meripet, the loss is agony; it is the absence of her children and the knowledge they are in state custody. A year and a half after leaving home, the 29-year-old mother looked at a photo of a brightly painted building surrounded by barbed wire where her children are believed to be held. She fell silent. And then she wept.
“When I finally see them again, will they even recognize me?” she asked. “Will I recognize them?”