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‘My Parents Were Disappeared': NYC Foreign Student Fears Going Home to China

Alfred Ailapati can't remember the last time he heard his parents' voices. He believes they were detained in China due to their Uyghur ethnicity.

What to Know

  • Aierken “Alfred” Ailapati came to NYC from China in 2015 as an international student, to study finance
  • Soon after, he believes his parents were detained by the Chinese government in internment camps, partly because of their ethnicity
  • He and his parents are Uyghur, an ethnic minority in China. The United Nations estimates China has detained as many as 1 million Uyghurs.

In 2015, Aierken “Alfred” Ailapati left his home and family in Xinjiang, China, to study finance at a university in New York City. Now, Alfred says he can't remember the last time he heard his parents' voices.

In August of 2018, he says he learned both of his parents had been sent to what he calls “re-education camps” in China. Alfred believes this was retaliation by the Chinese government for his decision to study abroad, and because of his family's ethnicity.

Alfred and his family are Uyghurs -- an ethnic minority who practice Islam and mainly reside in the Xinjiang region in northern China. According to mounting reports from the United Nations and the United States State Department, the Chinese Government has been detaining Uyghurs in these camps without charge, trial, or judicial process.

It is estimated by the United Nations and State Department that as many as one million Uyghurs have been detained in these camps.

However China says there is no such things as detention camps, rather that it is running “vocational education and employment training centers” for Uyghurs, and the centers do not violate human rights. Chinese officials say the centers were created to crack down on terrorism after China experienced a number of attacks attributed to Uyghurs. Speaking at the United Nations Committee Session Committee on Racial Discrimination on August 13 last year, a representative of China said the claim that millions of Uyghurs were detained was "completely untrue."

But as of August 2019, Ailapati says he had still not heard from his mother or father. Contacts in Xinjiang told him as many as 11 of his relatives have disappeared. In September, 2018, desperate for action on his parents' case, Alfred posted a video to YouTube entitled “Urgent and important message to UN, President Donald Trump, EU and everyone.”

In the video, he addresses the alleged human rights violations in China and tells his own story. “Eighty years ago, after the Allies stopped the Nazis from their attempt at ethnic cleansing, mankind made a promise that they will not allow this to happen again,” he says. “Just how many more people need to get imprisoned to stop them?”

Since then, Alfred has also spoken out at the Uyghur Rally in New York in February, where he and other religious activists including Jewish Holocaust survivors urged the United Nations to take action against China.

Uyghur activist Rushan Abbas also spoke at the rally, saying that she spoke out against the Chinese Government and, six days later, her sister and aunt disappeared -- she believes in retaliation. Abbas said many people remain uninformed about detentions in Xinjiang due to the Communist Government’s information blockade. The Chinese Embassy in the United States did not respond to questions on Abbas' family members.

The international community appears to be taking notice. On January 17th, 2019, the “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019” was introduced into U.S. Congress by New Jersey Rep. Christ Smith (R). It is a bill condemning “gross human rights violations of ethnic Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang, and calling for an end to arbitrary detention, torture, and harassment of these communities inside and outside China." The bill is currently in the first stage of the legislative process.

On July 11, 22 countries issued a joint statement condemning China's mass detention of Uyghur and other minorities in the country's Xinjiang region.

Meanwhile, Alfred is still waiting and hoping for the best. Afraid to go back to China, he applied for asylum in the United States, which was granted. While he heard that -- due to United Nations and European Union inspection in March -- people in his city had been released, he could not confirm whether his parents were among them.

"Both of my parents phone numbers say 'this number doesn't exist' when I phone them. I didn't dare contact my other relatives because me merely contacting them might put them in danger of being detained to concentration camp or prison." 

The Chinese Embassy in the United States did not respond to NBC 4 questions on the whereabouts of Ailapati's relatives, whether they had been sent to the camps or when they might be released if detained.

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