NEW YORK – For three decades, two brothers grew up in their own country of exile in Germany. Now they’re back in their homeland, in a new way.
Two years ago, Yapit and Kinbirhan Yun, both Uyghur, embarked on a quest to trace their roots—or at least more than half of their ancestry. For Kinbirhan Yun, who said he came from a “double insular society,” the journey was to find a mother tongue to speak with a friend who was still stuck in Uzbekistan. For Yapit Yun, the quest was, he said, to finally embrace his Uyghur-ness.
Their heritage, Uyghurs believe, was scattered across the globe by ruthless conquest and expansion by the Central Asian nation of China. To embrace that heritage today, they said, means allowing their nation, one that is being oppressed by a repressive government, a little more freedom. That includes seeking out Uyghur traditions and values and passing them down through religion and language.
Now Yapit Yun and Kinbirhan Yun, along with three other Uyghur men, are traveling to Washington and launching a project called “Quest for Uyghur Roots,” which brings their ethnic background into conversation with the U.S. as an embattled nation.
The young men are just beginning their journeys in America, visiting locations around the country, including Capitol Hill and libraries and talking to scholars, journalists and writers. They are living here with their parents, after they immigrated last year to learn more about their heritage. They hope to become citizen eventually, so they can participate in American customs, vote and speak out about their native land.
The United States, Yapit Yun said, is the way to go. “If I were to return to China, it’s very difficult to have similar situation,” he said. “I can definitely say the situation is completely much worse here than back home.”
Yapit Yun and his brother were raised in Germany, and said they spent time in neighboring countries as children. The international travel of the past four decades has left most of their ancestral heritage behind, they said. There are about 10 million Uyghurs in China today, the ethnic Turkic people who speak a language similar to Turkish.
Kinbirhan Yun’s mother is from a region of Kyrgyzstan once included in the Khang River that flows through China. His father is Uyghur and came from India. Their parents moved to Germany when they were in their 20s because the government was determined to wipe out all its Uyghur people, he said.
Their father had been conducting Uyghur religious rites in India until the government in his home region raised the issue of religious freedom. He moved back to China but was later forced to flee to Germany after another attack by the government on his religious activities.
He came to Germany in the 1990s and stayed.
Kinbirhan Yun said that during his three trips back home, he was able to reconnect with cousins and relatives. “But at the same time we are now living here here in Germany and it’s impossible to get back to our homeland,” he said.
At first, he said, he felt like he was back in exile. But that changed over time.
“Because of the American culture here, the way that you play with your friends, the way that you interact, the way that you express yourself, the way that you talk with people—it’s a whole new level of communication that I have with my family,” he said.
Just like many people, Yapit Yun said, he knows little about the state of Uyghur affairs in China. In this country, “the people are more outspoken about the problems, and I feel more comfortable to speak more with the people here than in my homeland,” he said.
He said he felt welcomed by the people in Washington.
“I can’t ask my mother or my grandfather, ‘Was that the way in the past?’ because their lives were different.”