When I left my children five years ago, I did it in a rush. I didn’t have time to grab any mementoes, any toys. All I took was a single family photo.
At the time, my husband and I felt we had no choice. As Uighurs in Xinjiang, the Chinese authorities had been harassing us constantly and demanding that we give up our passports. There would be “consequences” if we didn’t. There was also a strict birth control policy. They wanted to do a “body check” on me to see if I was pregnant, and I was.
We had managed to get visas to go to Italy, but we feared there would be questions at the border if we left with all our children at once. So we decided to take my then youngest son, who was still breastfeeding, and leave the four others with their grandparents until they could join us later on. They were between seven and 11 years old at the time.
If we hadn’t left China at that moment, I don’t know if we ever could have. But still we did not imagine how much worse things would get in Xinjiang. After we made it to Italy, the authorities started to target our family. My mother was taken to an internment camp, and my father was interrogated for several days before being taken to hospital. He was 80 years old.
Meanwhile, the children had no one. According to the Chinese government, they were the children of “betrayers”. Our other relatives could not take care of them because they were afraid that they would be sent to camps too.
The school soon noticed that no parents or guardians were present at meetings, so they asked the government to handle these “orphaned” children. They were sent to a prison-like school with 24-hour surveillance. They call these places “orphan camps”.
My children are called “orphans”, but I am still alive.
In November 2019, my father passed away. But that was also the month we received some good news, when the Italian government issued a permit to bring my children to Italy. Informing our children was a risk, because of surveillance of their communications, but we managed to do it in March last year in a video call.
To obtain their visas they would need to travel to the Italian consulate in Shanghai, 5,000km away. They were too young to take such a journey alone, and we couldn’t find anyone to accompany them due to the risks.
One night in May, the Chinese police interrogated my children for two hours. They asked why they kept in contact with their parents. They said this was dangerous, and threatened to take them to an internment camp at the end of the school term. The children were scared. My son was calling us every day, pleading to be rescued. He said he was on a list of people going to an internment camp. With the Italian visa set to expire in August, we had to let the children go to Shanghai by themselves.
We gave them instructions and, with the help of strangers and contacts, they made it to Shanghai. But when they got there, they were refused entry to the Italian consulate. Two days later the police caught them, and they were sent back to the orphan camp.
Until then, I had never given up hope that we would see our children again. But now our situation is desperate. China has detained my children, and if it wants to harm them, it can.
It is a risk for Uighurs to speak out about the human rights violations we are suffering, but we are telling our story in the hope that someone will help us. In the five years since I left my children, I have not stopped thinking about them, even for a minute. Nobody can truly understand what I feel unless they experience this.
I do not know what my children are doing now. I have seen footage of orphan camps posted online, so I know they watch Chinese propaganda films and sing “red” songs in the school. Whenever I watch these videos, I think of my children and the way they’re being educated. How they’re restricted in a small classroom, learning things they don’t want to, separated from their parents, and how they must miss us.
My baby was born in Italy, and we have another that was born here. Sometimes we hold them in our arms and tell them about their brothers and sisters in Xinjiang, and we cry. They ask when they will meet their siblings, and I do not know the answer. At night I wake from nightmares, and I pray to Allah to bring the children back to us. In those times, the only thing that comforts me is the photo of them I grabbed as I rushed out of the door five years ago.
Mihriban Kader is a Uighur Muslim who fled from Xinjiang to Italy in 2016. Her four eldest children were taken into Chinese state custody. She is featured in Amnesty International’s latest report, Hearts and Lives Broken: The nightmare of Uyghur families separated by repression