Seven members of a Chinese acrobatic troupe are in hiding in Toronto after defecting last week. From left, Dilshat Sirajidin, Ablikim Memet, Abduweli Ablimit, Abdurusul Abdukerim, Gulnar Wayit, Aygul Memet and Jappar Abchjreyim. In foreground is translator Mohamed Tohti. The acrobats spoke yesterday of repercussions back home./TANNIS TOOHEY/TORONTO STAR
Feb. 8, 2004. 08:09 AM
We had no rights:
Acrobats 7 defectors say they are fleeing ethnic persecution in China Government `used us to create this image of ethnic unity’
NICHOLAS KEUNG IMMIGRATION/DIVERSITY REPORTER
Acrobats by profession, they feel more like puppets in the hands of the Chinese government.
Seven of 13 performers defected last week after performing with the Xinjiang acrobatic troupe in Toronto and Ottawa. As Uighur Muslims, they say they detested being used by China’s Communist regime in its propaganda to cover up grotesque human rights violations against the ethnic minority group. “We performed for the government and they used us to create this image of ethnic unity. We didn’t have a choice. We had no right to oppose,” said juggler Dilshat Sirajidin who, at 40, is the oldest of the five men and two women.
The seven filed their refugee claims in Toronto last Monday, but have yet to retain a lawyer. Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, they are entitled to full refugee hearings, a process that can take years.
Yesterday, the acrobats were greeted like heroes by the entire Uighur community in Greater Toronto — 55 in all — at a North York restaurant. Most of the closely knit Uighur family of exiles are here as refugees, fleeing “political persecutions and ethnic discrimination” in the remote Xinjiang region of northwest China.
“We are here to celebrate the brave decisions that they made. This is the happiest day for our community.
“We are all brothers and sisters. We have gone through the same suffering and struggles to be in a free country, and we know how they feel,” said Shemshidin Ahmet, 62.
Ahmet drove from Montreal to be at the party yesterday.
Deciding to stay in Canada wasn’t easy for the seven, who are all married and have children back home, especially after learning that officials in China have already visited their families in Xinjiang in an attempt to lure them to return.
“They threatened my family that if I did not go back, they would not see me again because they would not allow them to leave the country or let me go back,” said contortionist Aygul Memet, 28, the mother of a young daughter.
Acrobat Gulnar Wayit said after she disappeared her relatives in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, were called to a meeting with authorities from the cultural department, which runs the acrobatic circuit.
“My family was very happy for me, but they told me to stop calling them or it would give them more troubles. They told me to take care,” said Wayit, 28, who has been involved with the circuit for almost two decades.
The troupe has travelled all over the world from Japan to Malaysia, Thailand, Greece, Russia, Poland and other Eastern European countries to perform at events put together by the Chinese government.
Wherever the performers went, they said they were always closely monitored by government-appointed troupe leaders and cautioned not to talk politics or meet with Uighur exiles overseas. The acrobats were paid the equivalent of $35 a day for 18 hours of work. At night, they had to cram into a small hotel room shared with six or seven people.
“Aygul and I were the only women there and we had to share room with all the men, which was completely against our religion,” noted Wayit who, like her colleagues, often lived on noodle soup while on tour.
Life isn’t any easier in Xinjiang, said Abdurusul Abdukerim, whose wife is carrying their first baby.
Although practising Muslims, the 27-year-old acrobat said they were not allowed to visit mosques for prayers, except for funerals. During fasting periods, the officials would force them to break their religious traditions and eat with them.
“They would even feed us pork even though they knew, as Muslims, we can’t eat pork at all,” Abdukerim said.
The asylum seekers, who are still in hiding, left the troupe after their final performance in Ottawa and were immediately whisked to Toronto, where they filed their refugee claims.
“We were very afraid and we could hear each other’s heartbeats when we got in the (getaway) car,” Sirajidin said.
Sirajidin said they hope the current media attention can help shed light on the plight and repression faced by the Uighurs in Xinjiang.
The group said they were outraged upon learning of the statement issued by the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa last week, blaming the Toronto Uighur community for their defection.
“We are not children. We made our own decision. No one pushed us to make the decision or forced us to stay,” Sirajidin noted.
He said the acrobats have been overwhelmed by the support they received from the community. When he learned that two Toronto acrobatic troupes have contacted the Star to offer help, he was speechless.
“We have not practised our acts for some time, but we’d love to perform for free for all Canadians, so they can see our rich culture,” he said. “It is nice to be in a free country and we get to do what we want.”
All seven acrobats know their future in Canada is full of uncertainty, but agree that there is no returning to China.
“We have no home to go back to. Our head would have to go first if we are sent back to China,” said Wayit, moving her hand across her neck as if cutting her own throat.
Feb. 6, 2004. 01:00 AM
`Please help us. We want freedom’
Mississauga man aided defection of 7 Chinese acrobats
`They are very scared and worried for their families’
NICHOLAS KEUNG IMMIGRATION/DIVERSITY REPORTER
It was midnight last Saturday when Mohamed Tohti’s cellphone rang in his Mississauga home.
On the other end of the line, in an Ottawa hotel, a man spoke in a quavering voice. “Please help us. We want freedom.”
The man was a 40-year-old performer with a touring Chinese acrobatic troupe from the Xinjiang Uighur province of China, a mainly Muslim region where some feel persecuted by the Beijing government.
He and six fellow acrobats were due to check out the next day before flying back to China from Toronto. There would be a small window between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Sunday when the five men and two women could escape the watchful eyes of their tour leaders.
The seven, among a group of 13 who came to Canada to perform during Chinese New Year celebrations in Toronto and Ottawa, had no idea where they were. The man on the phone spelled out for Tohti the name of a nearby hockey arena where they would meet: “O-t-t-a-w-a C-i-v-i-c C-e-n-t-r-e A-r-e-n-a.”
“We will see you at the entrance there at noon tomorrow,” the man whispered before he hung up the phone.
At dawn the next day, the troupe leaders, who held the performers’ travel documents, locked their belongings into a room and told the acrobats they had two hours of free time to see the city.
One of the seven acrobats said that they were only paid $35 a day and suggested selling parts of their costumes for money to buy souvenirs.
An unsuspecting troupe official gave the seven the key to their room. They grabbed their luggage and ran to the downtown Ottawa hockey arena, where they were greeted by Tohti and another Uighur émigré waiting in their vehicles.
“The moment they got in the car, they were relieved and said, `We are alive, in one piece and now we have freedom,'” Tohti said in an interview yesterday.
Tohti, a former professor at the Kashgar Teachers’ College in Urumqi in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China, works for a large Toronto company. He is one of 55 members of the closely knit Uighur community in the GTA. The 39-year-old is the president of the Uighur Canada Association.
He didn’t know much about the seven asylum seekers, who are between the ages of 28 and 40. He met them once briefly on Jan. 23 in the home of a friend after they contacted Tohti through a number posted on the association’s Web site.
They talked about the political climate back home and how the acrobats were living on noodle soup during their tour.
Tohti, a former student movement leader who was labelled by the central government as a separatist (or “splittist” in Beijing’s language) is familiar with the life of a fugitive. He fled China with his wife and their newborn baby in 1991, carrying fake passports as they travelled by train from Beijing through Mongolia, Russia and Romania before they arrived in Turkey. They came to Canada in November, 1998.
“Most people leave there because of the political persecutions and ethnic discrimination by the Chinese government,” Tohti said. “For me and my family, getting the fake documents was the only way out.”
A 2002 Amnesty International report documented “gross violations of human rights” in the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region as a result of the Communist regime’s crackdown on Uighur separatists and Muslim militants.
Christian Tyler, author of Wild West China: The Taming of Xinjiang, describes the northwest border region as an apartheid-like society.
“It’s a split society: You have Uighurs on the bottom end and new immigrant (Han) Chinese on the top end taking all the administrative jobs,” Tyler said in an interview.
“(This) reminds me of the old Soviet days when artists and dancers were people who wanted to defect because they had the opportunity to go abroad and they would try to stay abroad.”
Tohti said there are about 1 million Uighur refugees around the world. Fewer than 200 are in Canada, with the majority in Kazakhstan and Turkey.
The seven acrobats filed refugee claims in Canada Monday, but Tohti would not reveal their names or whereabouts.
“They are still very scared now and they are worried for their families back home. Government officials in Xinjiang have already questioned their families,” Tohti noted. “Life for their families won’t be easy.”
On Wednesday, the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa issued a statement denying that the seven are refugees. “All of them are married with their families back in Urumqi, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China.
Their families and relatives are now anxiously looking forward to their safe return at an early date,” it said.
With files from Gabe Gonda
Feb. 4, 2004. 06:19 AM
Chinese acrobats seek refugee status
Had performed in Toronto, Ottawa Left touring group on the weekend
NICHOLAS KEUNG IMMIGRATION/DIVERSITY REPORTER
Seven members of an elite Chinese acrobatic troupe, who disappeared after performing in Toronto and Ottawa during Chinese New Year celebrations, have filed refugee claims to stay in Canada.
The acrobats, a group of 13, had performed in Toronto at the Great Light of Chinese New Year Festival Jan. 22-26.
Their visit also included a stop in Ottawa for two performances at the Lansdowne Park Centre last weekend, said Jiang Min-wu, president of the Canada Zhong Guo Ren Association, which organized the trip.
“They finished their last show on Saturday and were given free time to go around and shop in the city. By the time they were supposed to check out from the hotel on Sunday, their rooms were empty. They took all their belongings,” Jiang said.
A Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesperson said the department couldn’t confirm or deny refugee claims have been filed by the seven.
A source confirmed yesterday that the five men and two women left the group after their final show late Saturday.
The performers, all between the ages of 28 and 40, came to Toronto Sunday.
The source said the seven walked into an immigration office in Etobicoke on Monday without their passports because troupe leaders held all their travel documents. They then filed for refugee status, the source said.
The acrobats are members of the Uighur people in the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region in northwestern China and were travelling with a group of artists from that area. There is a community of Uighur in Toronto.
The seven Chinese acrobats were seen in an Etobicoke immigration office on Monday
“It is a legitimate performing group, one of the top in China,” Jiang said. “We had no idea this would happen.
“When we offered our invitation to the Xinjiang group, our key was to have Adili Wxuer to perform tightrope walking in Toronto,” he said, referring to the star of the troupe.
“He has broken the world record five times and was something to watch.” Wxuer was not one of the seven who defected.
“I don’t know why they would defect from their country,” said Jiang. “They were here for a cultural exchange and we are not a political organization.”
He said the Xinjiang group and two others — totalling 34 people — were to return to China from Toronto on Monday and they all held Chinese passports issued for “government business.”
“But we extended our invitation to the other artists with the group for the shows. Everyone else has gone back to China as scheduled, except for the seven people who are missing.”
It is not known on what grounds the refugee claims were based. But it is known many of the minority groups in Xinjiang, including the Uighur, are Muslims who would like to separate from China because of the Communist regime’s limited religious freedom.
Officials with the Chinese Consulate-General in Toronto did not return calls.
It was the second time in 2004 that Chinese nationals arriving Toronto have filed refugee claims en masse. On New Year’s Day, 44 people from China, who boarded a plane from Frankfurt, Germany, arrived at Pearson International Airport and claimed refugee status.
The cases are still before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.
The latest statistics showed that the refugee board received 38,900 new claims in 2002-2003, with Pakistan and China being the leading sources of claims, followed by Mexico and Colombia.