Far From Xinjiang, Uyghurs Keep Their Culture Alive

Munich — In a nondescript building in southwestern Munich, Uyghur children gather every Saturday to do something that is banned in China: learn their native language.

On a recent morning, the children in the youngest course giggled as their instructor made animal noises to teach them the words for cat and goat. In more advanced classes, Uyghur literature is introduced. Many of the children have never visited their homeland of Xinjiang. 

In preserving the language and culture of a group that has long been under threat in Xinjiang, these courses mark an act of defiance against the Chinese government, which is working to destroy Uyghur culture within Xinjiang’s borders. 

“Language is our identity. Without our language, we cannot say that we are Uyghur,” Salamet Hashim, one of the teachers, told VOA. 

Hashim moved from Xinjiang to Germany in 2017. Like her students and their families, she doesn’t know if or when she’ll be able to return. 

The school, founded in 2018, focuses on the next generation. “We’re passing the baton to them as well to preserve and protect our identity,” she said.  

Beijing’s assimilation policies include banning Uyghur children from learning their language at school and forcing an estimated 900,000 Uyghur children into so-called boarding schools. 

Those actions and more have led several governments to accuse Beijing of committing genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs, a majority-Muslim ethnic group native to the northwestern region of Xinjiang.  

The Chinese government has long denied any wrongdoing in the region, which many Uyghurs prefer to call East Turkestan or the Uyghur Region.

China’s Foreign Ministry did not reply to VOA’s email requesting comment for this story. 


For decades, Munich has stood as the de facto European political center for this diaspora.  

That status is evident across the southern German city: in the language and dance classes, the city’s Uyghur restaurants, the well-attended protests outside the Chinese consulate, and the strong sense of community that unites the group.   

“The Munich community can be considered a model of what a Uyghur community is. It’s a small piece of East Turkestan. We feel at home here,” Abduweli Tursun, another language teacher, told VOA.

Munich’s role as a safe haven was prompted in part by a Uyghur language radio show run by VOA’s sister network, then known as Radio Liberty, and launched in the early 1970s.  

The show and city became a beacon of sorts for Uyghurs leaving Xinjiang, according to Enver Can. Originally from the city of Ghulja in Xinjiang, Can worked for the broadcaster for several years after moving to Munich in 1973. 

“Munich really became the political center of the Uyghur diaspora movement. And I’m proud to have contributed to that. And I’m proud to be part of this community,” Can, who is also head of the Uyghur human rights group the Ilham Tohti Initiative, told VOA. 

Wearing a blue and gold doppa, a traditional skullcap, Can pointed out various pieces of Uyghur art on his walls. By now, his years living in the Munich area far outnumber those lived in Xinjiang. 

When he arrived, only a handful of Uyghurs lived in Munich. Now, about 700 to 800 are estimated to live in the area. 

That’s still relatively small compared with other Uyghur communities. By contrast, several thousand live in the Washington area, and an estimated 50,000 Uyghurs live in Turkey.  

“Most of the Uyghurs who live in Munich are very involved with Uyghur culture, with political activism,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the advocacy group the World Uyghur Congress, or WUC.  

Many feel a responsibility to keep their culture alive and pass it on to a generation that knows about Xinjiang only from the stories their parents tell them and what they see in the news.

“If a nation forgets about their own heritage and culture, it means it’s the extinction of a nation,” said WUC spokesperson Zumretay Arkin. “If you don’t speak the language anymore, if you don’t practice the traditions, or values, or religion, then there’s nothing left for us.”

The language classes are a key component of that effort to protect Uyghur culture. For years, Beijing has targeted the Uyghur language as part of its broader effort to forcibly assimilate Uyghurs into the dominant Han group. 

“Uyghur children back home are the ones paying the price,” said Hashim, the teacher. “They’re forgetting their own roots.”

In Xinjiang, the Chinese government has outlawed some cultural practices. Others are co-opted and turned into tourist attractions to create the impression that all is well, according to Uyghur rights groups. As part of that campaign, authorities stage dancing performances to reinforce the stereotypical image of “happy, dancing Uyghurs.” 

By comparison, an award-winning dance team in Munich uses that art form to stay connected to their culture. Many of the students were born in Germany but hope to travel to Xinjiang one day, they told VOA before a rehearsal. 

“I always imagined how it would be to dance in my home country, and I hope it will happen one day,” one student said.

Food is another fundamental element of Uyghur culture. In Munich, many establishments offer a taste of home.  

Originally from the city of Kashgar, Sopor Hajim had lived in Munich for two decades before opening Tengri Tagh Uyghur Restaurant in 2018. 

“It allows for our community to share experiences, to share stories — but most importantly to grieve together because of that shared burden and collective pain,” Hajim said over a pot of tea. 

Nourgul Abliz, who opened Kashgar Uyghur Restaurant in 2011 with her husband, feels similarly. To her, restaurants help safeguard Uyghur identity outside their homeland.

“This is not just a restaurant. It’s a place of gathering for the community, which is essential in preserving our Uyghur identities,” she said while her young daughter climbed over chairs and under tables. 

It was lunchtime and the restaurant was busy, so Abliz spoke with VOA in a backroom, where Uyghurs sometimes convene to engage in Meshrep: community gatherings that include music, storytelling and food. 

In Xinjiang, Meshrep and Uyghur food are both politicized. In 2018, the Chinese government launched a campaign against halal labels. Still, even Chinese government officials like Uyghur food, the WUC’s Arkin said. 

“We always say they love our food, they love our culture, but they don’t love us,” Arkin said in between bites of a spicy noodle dish called rangpiza. 

To Hajim, the restaurants in Munich are perhaps the most effective way of reminding Uyghurs of their home. For even a brief meal, he said, restaurants help transport customers thousands of miles back to a land that they may never be able to return to.

“When Uyghurs come here and eat,” he said, “they feel like they ate back home, like they ate back in East Turkestan.”

Leaning back into the cushioned booth, which is the same sky blue as the East Turkestan flag, Hajim glanced at a nearby picture. It depicts one of the few mosques remaining in Kashgar that authorities haven’t destroyed.  

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