Uyghurs outdoors China are traumatized. Now they’re beginning to discuss it

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In 2020, Xinjiang police began sending Aksu text messages over WeChat and WhatsApp. They pressured him to cooperate and threatened his family. Aksu never responded, so messages arrived from more phone numbers, with diverse country codes, not just for mainland China but also Hong Kong and Turkey.

Many felt that they weren’t the ones in danger and had little right to dwell on how the crisis was affecting them.

In September, Aksu received a call from an old friend, a high school classmate with whom he’d shared a dormitory bunkbed for four years. The friend, now a police officer, was polite. He reminisced about old memories and thanked Aksu for times he’d helped him. But it was clear the purpose of the call wasn’t friendly. “He wanted me to give him information,” Aksu says.

As it was, Aksu was struggling to hold things together. Though DC represented a positive change, he still ached for his family and remained “tortured” by his brother’s death. The phone call was a final straw. “I felt betrayed,” Aksu says. “I cried. I was saying, ‘How could this happen to me, how could someone do that?’”

Later that day, he passed out. He woke up the next morning on the floor to a colleague knocking on his door. Aksu had missed a meeting and coworkers were concerned. His anxiety, Aksu found, was back in force. So were the long, wakeful nights. Some days later, he passed out again. “Then, one day, I had this stupid idea of suicide.”

“I was so concerned,” Aksu says. “Like, ‘Oh my god, why should I think about this?’”

He confided in a colleague, who confided in their boss, Louisa Greve. Greve, the Uyghur Human Rights Project’s global advocacy director, took Aksu to a popular Uyghur restaurant in the district’s Cleveland Park neighborhood. Over spicy noodles, she comforted him and suggested he seek counseling.

Aksu had been here before, of course. He was reluctant to try therapy again, but allowed himself to be convinced. Greve introduced him to Charles Bates, a psychologist in Northern Virginia who had volunteered with the Uyghur Wellness Initiative.