Mustafa Aksu was already sinking into depression when he learned of the successive deaths of his brother, uncle and two cousins back home.
Home was Xinjiang, the western region of China where the government has conducted a campaign of repression against largely Muslim ethnic minority groups, particularly Uyghurs like Mr. Mustafa’s family. The repression includes punishing those who had overseas ties, so Mr. Mustafa — then a graduate student in the United States — did not want to risk contacting his family to find out what had happened.
He struggled to focus at school. He battled insomnia. When he did sleep, he would often wake up screaming from nightmares — of the police chasing his family and banging on the door, of fear and hiding.
Encouraged by friends, Mr. Mustafa in 2018 did something that other Uyghurs have increasingly done, despite the cultural stigma: He reached out to a therapist.
“I was emotional and crying all the time,” said Mr. Mustafa, 35. “And I just realized I could not keep doing this.” His uncle had been sick, he said, but he still doesn’t know how his brother and cousins died.
More than four years since the Chinese government intensified its crackdown in Xinjiang, Uyghurs in the diaspora are starting to grapple with their trauma. To help, a growing coalition of community leaders, professional counselors and volunteers has emerged to respond to what Louisa Greve, director of global advocacy for the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, called a “slow-motion crisis.”
“It’s a daily cloud of suffering hanging over all Uyghurs around the world,” she said.
In the United States, the Uyghur Wellness Initiative has built a small network of therapists to work pro bono with the community. In Belgium, a Uyghur activist coordinates online training for women led by counselors who worked with survivors of the Bosnian genocide. In Germany, a group of mental health specialists works with community leaders to tailor government resources to Uyghur needs.
“Some people are emotionally numbing themselves, or pretending that nothing has happened,” said Nurgul Sawut, a social worker in Australia who has been organizing group therapy sessions for her fellow Uyghurs. “Rather than let the trauma bury us, we want to try to regenerate it, to turn it into something more meaningful.”
Determined to eliminate perceived threats of ethnic separatism, the authorities in China have detained as many as one million Uyghurs and others in internment camps and prisons. They have placed the region under tight surveillance, sent residents to work in factories, stepped up birth control measures for Muslim women and placed children in boarding schools.
Informal surveys show that many overseas Uyghurs have experienced some form of trauma, depression or anxiety as a result. The coronavirus pandemic and its lockdowns have not helped.
Memet Imin, a New York-based Uyghur medical researcher, found that many of the respondents to his surveys, conducted in 2018 and 2019, reported insomnia, decreased productivity at work and increased agitation. About one in four had experienced suicidal thoughts.
“The situation was very obvious,” Dr. Imin said.
Survivor’s guilt has dampened what were once joyous moments, like dancing at a wedding or celebrating a birthday.
For Mr. Mustafa, the graduate student, the guilt came on strongest at restaurants or scenic destinations. Seeing a therapist helped, he said, not only with the guilt but also with the grief and the nightmares. He learned tips for how to take better care of himself, like taking more breaks. He said he had been diagnosed with depression.
“I really want more people to take this opportunity to just see a therapist,” said Mr. Mustafa, who now works for Uyghur Human Rights Project and is also involved with the Uyghur Wellness Initiative. “Because most of the people that I know are suffering a lot.”
Many of the one million or so Uyghurs estimated to be living outside of China cannot freely communicate with relatives back home. In recent years, the Chinese government has stepped up surveillance and targeted people with overseas connections for punishment. Even now, many diaspora Uyghurs do not know how their relatives are doing, whether they are in an internment camp or a prison or even if they are alive or dead.
Mirzat Taher was sent to an internment camp in 2017 for having briefly worked as a guide for Chinese tourists in Turkey, said his wife, Mehray Mezensof. She said she contemplated trying to raise awareness about her husband’s plight a “million times.”
But Ms. Mezensof, 27, an Australian citizen, had heard the stories of other overseas Uyghur activists whose relatives had been detained or imprisoned, sometimes for decades or longer. In some cases, Uyghurs who spoke out had reported receiving messages from relatives, or even the Chinese authorities directly, telling them to stop their activism or to return home.
So she stayed quiet — until one day, when she heard through a contact that her husband had been formally arrested and sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges of separatism. Since then, Ms. Mezensof has given multiple press interviews, met with Australian politicians and petitioned the Chinese government to release her husband.
“As much as it scared me, I thought I have to do this because if I don’t, there’s no one else left to speak up for my husband except for me,” Ms. Mezensof said in a telephone interview from Melbourne, where she now lives with her parents. She said her hair had started falling out from the stress and she’d lost interest in food. Additionally, the constant anxiety had made it impossible to continue her work as a nurse.
“I’m having a really difficult time processing everything and coping with all of the emotions and all of the uncertainty,” she said. “And on top of all that, obviously I’m missing my husband and wanting to be with him and live a normal life but then I think, ‘Will I ever even be able to have that again?’”
Organizers of the mental health initiatives say they have so far seen a positive, if cautious, response from diaspora Uyghurs. One big challenge, they say, has been overcoming the cultural stigma of therapy, pervasive in Uyghur and many other cultures.
Linguistic barriers are also a problem; relatively few professionally trained mental health counselors speak Uyghur. Other challenges are more administrative, like the difficulty in the United States of finding mental health care that is covered by insurance.
Some who have made it past the barriers, like Mamutjan Abdurehim, say that therapy offered a much-needed source of structured communication during a period of profound isolation. Mr. Mamutjan, 43, had been living abroad but having nearly daily video chats with his family back in Xinjiang until 2017, when his wife was detained. She had returned home with the children to replace a lost passport. Mr. Mamutjan’s mother then advised him, for everyone’s safety, to stop calling.
Over the next few years, he has had only occasional glimpses of his two children through grainy photos sent by friends. At first, he tried to deal with the mounting anxiety on his own, before deciding he needed professional help.
“It was a useful tool for me to know how to communicate my inner feelings,” he said.
The reality is that counseling, of course, has its limits. Mamtimin Ala, a Uyghur activist in Brussels, said that since the crackdown began, he had often found himself turning to poetry, the lifeblood of Uyghur culture, for solace in his darkest moments.
He cited one verse in particular, from “Elegy” by Perhat Tursun, a prominent Uyghur writer who was reportedly detained by Chinese authorities in 2018.
Poem translated by Joshua L. Freeman.