Kuzzat Altay’s tale will sound familiar to many Jews.
Persecuted in his homeland, imprisoned at one point, ostracized by friends and schoolmates, he emigrated and – after a circuitous route – ends up as a refugee in America, joining an aunt already there.
He arrives in the US without knowing English, but with a wife and a 10-month-old son. He lives off of food stamps while working first at a restaurant, then at a grocery store, then as an Amazon delivery man. Eventually, he learns a trade (writing computer code), excels at it, becomes a successful entrepreneur and starts a tech-education business of his own that employs hundreds and serves thousands.
He doesn’t forget where he came from or his people suffering thousands of miles away, and he devotes time, energy and money to their cause.
Altay is not a Jew who left Russia for the goldene medina at the turn of the 20th century; instead, he is a Muslim Uyghur who left China and ended up in Fairfax, Virginia, at the beginning of the 21st century. Ever since he has dedicated himself to growing his business – he is the founder and CEO of a tech education company called CYDEO that runs what he calls “coding boot camp” to train students in computer programming skills in six-to-10-month programs – and to raise awareness of the Chinese persecution of its Muslim Uyghur minority.
It is the pursuit of both goals that brought Altay to Israel this week.
“One day in 2018 my dad left me a voice message, and said that they are taking him,” Altay – speaking in flawless English – said during an interview in the lobby of Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel. “I was, like, ‘where are they taking him?’ He just disappeared.”
Altay thought his father – who lived in Urumqi in the northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – would be back in a week or two. He was wrong, he did not hear from him again for two years.
“One day someone texted me, sent me a Twitter link and asked if this was my dad,” remembered Altay, who had become president of the Uyghur American Association (UAA) in the interim. “I clicked on the link, and saw my dad on a bed saying that he is the father of Kuzzat Allay, the president of the UAA. He said, ‘son, stop doing anything bad against our government, our party is treating me really well. If you continue doing this stuff, I will denounce you as my son. I will have no son like you.’”
Who are the Uyghur Muslims in China?
THE UYGHURS are a minority of 12 million predominantly Muslims living primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, an area Altay calls East Turkestan. They speak their own Turkic language, Uyghur, written in a Perso-Arabic script. The US, UK, Canada and Netherlands have accused China of committing genocide against the Uyghurs, defined according to an international convention cited in a recent BBC report as “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.”
According to this BBC report from May, which was based on leaked police documents, almost 23,000 residents – or more than 12% of the adult population of one Xinjiang county – were in a camp or prison in the years 2017 and 2018. If applied to Xinjiang as a whole, the report said, the figures would mean the detention of more than 1.2 million Uyghur and other Turkic minority adults in these concentration camps, facilities the Chinese government calls – in Orwellian terms – re-education camps.
Survivors of those camps have spoken of torture, forced sterilization, rape and the use of inmates as slave labor.
What had Altay done to incur the wrath of the Chinese Communist Party, whom he said obviously forced his father to make that statement disavowing him? He became heavily involved with the small Uyghur community in the US, founded in Fairfax – a Washington suburb – the first Uyghur community center as a hub for community organizing, political lobbying and cultural education, and became involved in getting Congress to pass two bills dealing with the Uyghurs – the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act and the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act – all moves that infuriated the Chinese government.
“When I saw my father on Chinese national TV I was mesmerized,” Altay said. “I didn’t know if I should be happy to see my dad alive, or sad that he was denouncing me on national TV. I was, of course, very happy that he had been released – I hadn’t heard from him for two years. I literally thought he was killed.”
Rather than deterring him from further involvement with the Uyghur community in the US and further political action on their behalf, Altay said this spurred him on.
“I was, like, fantastic – this is working,” he said.
Altay surreptitiously got a message to his father telling him that the Chinese do not gain anything by killing a man nearly 70 years old, but that they “give him a cause that I will use in every international forum as leverage. I didn’t know if my father would get this message, or whether they would kill him, but I know that if you don’t speak up, many others will be killed.”
The activities of Uyghurs speaking up abroad, he said, made the Chinese government realize that there are consequences for its actions.
“I think the reason that [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] started the concentration camps is that he was overconfident. He didn’t think that the world would do anything because it needed China, that this was not the old China, but rather a superpower. He is the supreme leader of a superpower so he feels he could do whatever he wanted. He got too arrogant. “
“I think the reason that [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] started the concentration camps is that he was overconfident. He didn’t think that the world would do anything because it needed China, that this was not the old China, but rather a superpower. He is the supreme leader of a superpower so he feels he could do whatever he wanted. He got too arrogant. “Kuzzat Altay
Inspired by The Prince of Egypt: Xi Jinping as pharaoh jumping into the Red Sea
Altay said he was inspired as a kid by the Chinese-dubbed DreamWorks adaption of the Exodus story, The Prince of Egypt, and that one thing that struck him was that no one dragged Pharaoh to the Red Sea in pursuit of the Hebrews; instead, he went of his own accord.
“He was excited, overcome and said he would chase after Moses. He was the one jumping into the sea. He killed himself; I think dictators have similar tendencies. It doesn’t make sense what Xi is doing. He is jumping on his own; no one is pushing him. He got overconfident locking up millions of Uyghurs. He thought he could get away with it.”
What he did not calculate, Altay said, was the international Uyghur community. “Despite their small numbers [estimates of the numbers in the US range from 10,0000 to 30,000], despite family members being kidnapped in China if those abroad speak out, despite less than 1,000 people speaking out in the world, we were effectively able to get the world to believe that there was a genocide going on, and to pass bills that have a had a huge impact on the Chinese economy.”
Many Uyghurs abroad, he said, are afraid of getting involved because they are afraid that their relatives at home will face retribution. “Many people are so scared of even contributing money because they fear it would get their families in China in trouble.”
Asked if that meant Chinese intelligence officials were monitoring the community in Fairfax, he said, “the Chinese intelligence is not in Fairfax, Virginia; it is in your brain. They [the Uyghur] are educated in a Chinese Communist environment so that it will follow them. If you go to Mecca, if you go to Virginia, if you go to Brooklyn, New York. It’s with you, so you can’t take it out.”
ONE PARTICULAR US bill that has made a difference is the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which makes it mandatory for companies making products in Xinjiang to verify that slave labor was not being used in the production process.
“That bill made a difference,” he said. “Everything is now suspected of having been made using slave labor unless proven otherwise. It makes doing business in China difficult because if you are Nike or Adidas, you do not want to go through this crazy process to prove that slave labor was not used for your product.”
No one can understand the Uyghurs better than the Jews
The world, he said, is waking up to China’s abuses, but it has not been an easy process.
“Just a few years ago, people were skeptical when we mentioned what was happening. But why would I lie that my dad is in a concentration camp? Why would I lie about genocide? People automatically suspect that something is wrong with you.”
One notable exception, he said, was the Jewish community. “When we spoke to the Jewish community, nobody was trying to prove we were lying or exaggerating, but said, what can we do?
“One of the reasons we are in Israel is because I believe that no one can understand us better than the Jewish people,” he said.
“When we spoke to the Jewish community, nobody was trying to prove we were lying or exaggerating, but said, what can we do? One of the reasons we are in Israel is because I believe that no one can understand us better than the Jewish people.”Kuzzat Altay
Since most Muslim countries have close business ties with China, they have not been supportive and even disputed widespread persecution claims of the Uyghur. Altay took to Twitter earlier this month to criticize Saudi Arabia when Xi was given an honorary degree during a visit there.
“I am Muslim, and I am having a hard time explaining the situation to the Muslim people – imagine that,” he said. “Any Jewish person I talk to, when we mention the concentration camps and what is going on – that they took our elites first, our academicians, our scientists, and then the second layer – when we describe this, immediately you see recognition and compassion. I feel that automatically nobody can understand us better than you.
“Even though you went through the Holocaust, you have a successful nation that is advancing, that is advancing technology, advancing democracy and the rule of law, and becoming an example for the world. Our land in East Turkestan is three times bigger than Turkey, and I believe we are 20 million people. When we look at the few million people here, it is like, how can we learn from this nation that was able to get through this Holocaust and rebuild itself? I think this is something that the Uyghurs need to look up to and learn from.”