While Izzetgul.Eli, 25, studied at university in Beijing, she also volunteered as a Uygur translator for police when they arrested Uygurs on suspicion of stealing or drug addiction, the same people she is now trying to help as project manager for Beijing-based NGO Aizhixing.
What did you do before you joined Aizhixing?
I grew up in an area populated by Han Chinese in Xinjiang's Shihezi city and went to Mandarin-language schools. So I couldn't read and write Uygur before I came to study at Minzu University of China in Beijing in 2002 to major in Uygur, English and Chinese translation. I spent five years instead of the normal four years on the degree as I needed one extra year to learn Uygur. After graduation in 2007, I went back home to sit the civil service qualification, without success. Early in 2008 I was back in Beijing and found a job with Aizhixing.
How big is Beijing's Uygur community?
It is difficult to say, but there are a lot of students of Uygur origin. Many others have lived in Beijing for a long time and young Uygurs like me come to work in Beijing. There are also Uygurs living on the margins, those without a full-time jobs, regular incomes or permanent residence, who are widely regarded as Uygurs with quotation marks because they are often seen as Uygur thieves, drug addicts and dealers. The HIV/Aids prevalence in the Uygur community is higher due to drug abuse. Most came to Beijing to make a living but things did not go in their favour.
What has been the biggest challenge you've encountered so far?
I was involved in an Aids awareness programme for Uygurs in Kunming in 2008 but it took more than two months for me to get into their community and win their trust. To fight misconception over HIV/Aids among the Uygur people in the beginning was another challenge as many Uygurs believe they can't contract the virus because they do not eat pork.
What's the one thing about which you're most proud?
We got to know a 23-year old Uygur youth recently who was smuggled to Beijing about 10 years ago by Uygur gangsters with promises of work. Instead he was forced to join a gang of thieves and was often subjected to beatings. He finally managed to flee the gang and came to us for help and he just called from Xinjiang the other day to tell us he was safe at home. Many others are less fortunate. They become addicted to drugs and even contract HIV/Aids. They tell us they have either lost contact with their families or feel too ashamed to go home because of their drug problems, health problems or because they can't go back to a normal life because they have little education.
How have your experiences changed you?
Before I joined Aizhixing, I had a totally different perception of the people we're now trying to reach. When I worked as a volunteer translator for Beijing police and detention facilities I often saw them from the police point of view as nothing more than criminals. But now I see them differently and when I get to know these people I realise there are many factors contributing to who they are now, and it often includes despair.
Can you illustrate what difficulties a Uygur can encounter in Beijing?
Two hundred Uygurs now face eviction from their homes in Daxing county which are marked for demolition. Many are having difficulty finding new homes because they are shunned by Han landlords. A lot of Uygurs in Beijing are in dire need of help from people like me as well as the wider community. Sometimes we are torn between the demand for help and limited help we can provide. I have known at least 10 Uygur youths who have died of HIV/Aids because we could not raise enough money to send them to hospital.
Do you feel more Chinese or Uygur?
My colleagues often ask this question and my take is I am a Chinese because that's the way we've been taught: to love the country and the party and indeed there is no doubt I'm a Chinese, but one of a different ethic group.
Do you have a long-term plans, both personally and professionally?
I would rather stay in Beijing, but on a personal level, sometimes I feel torn between the desire to go back to Xinjiang and the desire to stay on because I have to deal with differences in culture, food and customs in Beijing.
What about your love life?
I'm not in a rush actually, but my parents worry that I might not find a Uygur boyfriend in Beijing, and say that if I go back to Xinjiang the chances are much higher. Most of the Uygur parents hope their kids find a partner from the same ethic, religious and cultural background, but the chances are slim if I stay in Beijing. They would say they understood if I married say, a Han guy, given my limited options, but they would probably wish it wasn't their child who was marrying a Han.