It was a sunny and pleasant afternoon on March 21st several years ago. As the warmer temperature began to melt the snow, it felt like spring had arrived. While walking on a street near Boston’s famous Fenway Park, I noticed a beautiful scene where the steam was whirling and rising from the ground to the sky like a whirling Dervish. Recalling that it was Nowruz day, I scribbled a poem instantaneously.
One month ago, members of the Uyghur community in the Greater Boston area participated in the Nowruz Festival organized by the Central Asian Student Association at Harvard University.
Sitting as one of the participants in the festival, listening to the congratulatory remarks of University President Lawrence S. Bacow and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken ’84 broadcasted via video, I felt warm feelings among participants, be they from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, or Uzbekistan. Like everyone else, I felt joyful seeing every group’s festival performance, which included singing, dancing, and a fashion show. And on behalf of the Uyghur community, I, too, presented to the audience my poem written on Nowruz day near Fenway Park several years ago.
While watching festivities, I thought to myself — would it not be the absolute joy of Nowruz if the dark day ends and warm spring-like freedom embraces Uyghurs immediately?
Nowruz is the day of the spring equinox. The celebration of Nowruz is one of our traditional holidays and has a long history among Uyghurs. I have been celebrating it since I was a kid; I particularly enjoyed the wrestling matches back then. The social atmosphere of the Nowruz festival is inclusive, immersed in unity and equality; people young and old participate in the holiday. Some tell epic stories, others read poems, some dance, and others wrestle. It is celebratory; people dress up with their new clothes and wish each other good luck — and they all share an exceptional food called “Nowruz Eshi.”
Nowruz day is philanthropic and inspirational. Able members of the community help the poor, sick, weak, and vulnerable, while the learned men encourage others to pursue knowledge, choose righteousness over wickedness, and protect and preserve the unity of the community. Through those events, they turn Nowruz day into a day of joy which warms the hearts of everyone with friendship, compassion, love, unity, and hope.
For Uyghur people, celebrating Nowruz is not simply showing respect to the law of nature where the harsh winter ends and warm spring starts. It is also their longing for ending brutal and oppressive days and the beginning of peaceful times.
Uyghur immigrants celebrate Nowruz in any American state with a sizable Uyghur community, and Massachusetts is surely one of them, as around 200 Uyghurs reside in the Greater Boston Area. Until 2017, celebrating Nowruz might have been considered the continuation of a tradition from the so-called Uyghur “Autonomous” Region — as Uyghurs living there are not afforded much autonomy at all. But since 2017 — when the Chinese government began building internment camps to detain at least a million Uyghurs with baseless charges and cruel and extreme measures — celebrating Nowruz for Uyghurs abroad has been seen as one of the symbols in the fight against the Chinese government’s destruction of Uyghur identity.
Five years have passed since then. Although several world governments — such as the U.S., the U.K., and most recently, France — have declared China’s abuse of Uyghurs an ethnic genocide, China is not backtracking. Over a million Uyghur intellectuals, professionals, religious leaders, and ordinary people have yet to be released from the camps, many have died, and many more are still missing. Uyghur children are still suffering and their parents are taken from their homes against their will and forced to work in harsh conditions.
China’s policy directed toward Uyghur people is the mixture of the worst form of capitalism — exploitation, the worst form of communism — state terror, and the worst form of ultra-nationalism — forceful assimilation. Its ultimate goal is to erase everything Uyghur. Although a crime of this magnitude committed in the name of the Chinese state should have shaken the conscience of the world, more countries have publicly stood with China than against it.
Realizing that facing existential threat, Uyghurs are clinging to every bit of chance that gives them hope for a better tomorrow and Uyghurs across the diaspora are trying to pick joy among sadness, choose hope over hopelessness, and display our determination to keep our identity whenever there is even an iota of possibility to do so. And participating in the Nowruz Festivals like this one held at Harvard not only lifts our spirits but also gives us an opportunity to display our strong will to preserve our culture. When there is a continuity of our traditional culture, there will be a future for Uyghurs and the real Nowruz — the warm spring-like freedom — will embrace the Uyghur people at last.
Kaiser Mejit is a graduate of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.