A Uyghur Vista Student and Her Family’s Culture of Resilience and Connection


Gavin Martinez, Writer

In Spring 2023, senior, Maria Adili, came to school wearing face paint depicting the turquoise flag of East Turkestan with a hand of the Chinese flag covering her mouth. This same face makeup and the identical mask is one of the symbols of Uyghur resistance against Chinese oppression. Adili, a Uyghur herself, engaged in this protest movement at our school, Vista del Lago High School. 

Adili’s family immigrated from East Turkestan, the region called Xinjiang by the Chinese government that occupies the region in the Western half of the nation, in December 2001. The Uyghurs that populate the region are a Muslim minority group currently facing genocide by the country’s authoritarian government. 

“ They’ve…been oppressing us for a long time and judging us based on… the differences between us.” said Adili explaining the long existing persecution faced by the Uyghur population.

More recently, internment camps have opened in the region detaining more than a million Uyghurs as well as ethnic Uzbeks and Kazakhs, among others. “They like to call it a reeducation camp because essentially they’re trying to brainwash the Islam out of us…” said Adili, delineating the forced assimilation methods employed at the camps. 

The camps are a wider effort to crack down any kind of independence movement for the region and to control the local population, under the guise of antiterrorism measures, by targeting Muslims and those practicing Islamic traditions, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

“Any intelligent thinkers” are also those targeted for detention according to Adili, whose family is fortunate to not be imprisoned in one of the camps unlike many other Uyghur families. 

She went on to describe the many documented human rights abuses that the Chinese government commits within the camps including forced labor, forced sterilizations, and physical abuse resulting in many cases of the deaths of the camps’ residents. Often it is Western companies and consumers that profit from Uyghur forced labor. Adili argues that consumers should be more mindful of making sure they’re not buying clothes that profit off of forced Uyghur labor.

Adili emphasized the novel “The Backstreets” by Uyghur writer Perhat Tursun, a first hand narrative describing the impact of Chinese expansion and control over East Turkestan, especially within the capital, Urumqi, where Adili’s mom was born. “What looms over is the fog. It’s a metaphorical fog over the control and the oppression that Uyghur people will go through but it’s also the fog of the immense pollution over Urumqi which was once a really beautiful place, where it wasn’t as industrialized but [now] there’s a lot of factories and smog.” said Adili detailing Tursun’s illustrative writing. Those who are fortunate not to be a part of the camps, are nonetheless subjected to the impacts of Chinese colonialism and industrialization. 

The culture that the government is trying to extinguish is rich, marked by East Turkestan’s historical location on the Silk Road and the nomadic lifestyle of many of the region’s inhabitants.

Uyghur history is one full of intellectuals, philosophers, poets, and writers with a deep tie to Islamic Sufism like many of its neighboring Turkic-speaking Central Asian countries. 

Moreover, “Food is extremely important in this culture…it’s like how you connect with each other, it’s how grandmothers show their love, [it’s] how mother’s show their love.” said Adili describing the cultural significance of Uyghur food, a mix of Mediterranean and East Asian dishes, resembling that of Mongolian cuisine. 

Importantly, “being Uyghur means you also have a lot of pride. We have a lot of passion for ourselves and for our culture” said Adili. Being a minority religion, in one the world’s most populous countries, Uyghur culture has survived by asserting itself and having pride as a way of empowering themselves against the hardships they face. 

Being an oncologist and having graduated from Peking University in Beijing, Adili’s father brought the family to Sweden to do research. In 2003, her father gained a position at University of Pennsylvania, where Adili was born, moving the family to America. After moving between various states, spending a large amount of her childhood in Texas, the family settled in Modesto, before moving to Folsom, this year, where her father gained a new position at a local hospital. Her mother was also a chemical engineer in America until recently due to poor workplace treatment. 

The Uyghur community within America, especially in smaller cities, is sparse. In Modesto, Adili’s family knew of one other Uyghur family. In Folsom, Adili knows of none.

Being unable to see your ethnicity reflected in those around you, creates a sense of isolation for Adili and others like her. Additionally, because of a lack of Uyghurs in society, most will not consider that she is “more than Asian, [as] they don’t really look deeply into what being uyghur is.” 

Despite an existing disconnect with the world, Adili describes another disconnect between parents and children of Uyghur immigrants. “There’s a distance between every Uyghur American and their parents because of that gap in the culture because this world is so vastly different from the one that they grew up in.” This lack of understanding about each other’s realities can lead to strained relationships. Adili describes how this detachment can result in many young Uyghurs acting out rebelliously. Many Uyghur children in America often reject traditional Islamic practices. This rift between parents and children represents a greater struggle for immigrants who try to remember their culture while also feeling the need to become Americanized and fit into the national culture.

Furthermore, the effects of Chinese oppression is long-lasting for Uyghurs, impacting those even thousands of miles away from East Turkestan. “When you grow up in a society that resents you and treats you so poorly. You’re going to end up with disorder, depression, anxiety.” said Adili. She explains that the immense prevalence of mental illness in Uyghur communities can sometimes be stigmatized as it is just seen as “a part of life”, preventing many Uyghurs from accessing clinical support.

 Adili says, however, that it is common for the community to support each other through “economic, physical, social, or mental and emotional issues.” Recently, mental health has become more of a priority, as our society generally becomes more conscious of health afflictions that aren’t purely physical. 

Adili also talks about how as a child, growing up in Texas, she was called a “terrorist” for those who knew that she was Muslim, facing discrimination and Islamophobia for that. However, she says she’s faced more discrimination in the United States for being a woman. 

Nonetheless, the impacts of isolation, mental illness, and prejudice can be lessened by developing personal connections with distant Uyghurs and their communities. “For me, when I meet another Uyghur American teenager, we automatically have this connection because we already know each other’s culture, we know how our parents react to different things, we know their attitudes, but it’s also the Americaness that is tied to it.” said Adili. This is the shared identity and experience felt by many first generation children of immigrants, especially Uyghur descendants. These connections are imperative as they can make living in a society that doesn’t reflect them feel as if it reflects them, at least for this moment. 

Across America, Uyghurs have been trying to bridge the physical distance between them by fostering a sense of community to support other Uyghurs and help preserve their cultural identity. For example, an annual Uyghur American Cup is facilitated through a tournament with Uyghur teams from around the United States and Canada coming together in the name of soccer and connection.

On a personal level, Adili emphasizes the importance of community building events for her family as a way of engaging with their culture and faith. “…My mom is a very extroverted person but in America she became more and more introverted because she didn’t think she could connect with people…But when we find Uyghur communities, she’s so lively and I feel like she’s really finding herself in that culture because for her connecting with people means that they have to have that…common experience.”

The future is generally uncertain for Uyghurs in East Turkestan. Despite international condemnation and sanctions against the Chinese government for the internment camps, these camps still exist, detaining an increasing number of Muslims. Witnessing so much violence in her home country, having these connections with other Uyghurs allows Adili and others like her to realize their Uyghur American identity–one of being apart of their new country while also fostering an appreciation for their culture that has persevered against unimaginable horrors yet, continues to thrive in a new country.