Here in the United States, 19-year-old Aséna Tahir Izgil feels as though she’s a “grandma.” Aséna is Uyghur, an ethnic minority being imprisoned in labor camps by the Chinese government. The pain she witnessed before escaping in 2017 has aged her beyond her years, she says, making it hard to relate to American teenagers.
“They talk about … TikToks … clothing, malls, games, movies, and stuff,” she says. “And then the things I think about [are] genocide, Uyghurs, international policies … all the annoying adult facts.”
For years, the Chinese government has been persecuting her people, but few have escaped to bear witness. This week on The Experiment: Aséna shares her family’s story of fleeing to the U.S. to escape genocide, adjusting to newfound freedom, and trying to deal with the grief and guilt of being a refugee.
This episode’s guests include Aséna Tahir Izgil and her father, Tahir Hamut Izgil, a Uyghur poet and author.
Further reading: One by One, My Friends Were Sent to the Camps, Saving Uighur Culture From Genocide, ‘I Never Thought China Could Ever Be This Dark,’ China’s Xinjiang Policy: Less About Births, More About Control
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This episode was produced by Julia Longoria, with help from Gabrielle Berbey and editing by Katherine Wells and Emily Botein. Fact-check by Yvonne Rolzhausen. Sound design by David Herman, with additional engineering by Joe Plourde. Translations by Joshua L. Freeman.
A translation of Tahir Hamut Izgil’s poem “Aséna” is presented below.
By Tahir Hamut Izgil
Translation by Joshua L. Freeman
A piece of my flesh
A piece of my bone
A piece of my soul
A piece of my thought
In her thin hands
the lines of time grow long.
In her black eyes
float the truths of stone tablets.
Round her slender neck
a dusky hair lies knotted.
On her dark skin
the map of fruit is drawn.
is a raindrop on my cheek, translucent
as the future I can’t see.
is a knot that need not to be untied
like the formula my blood traced from the sky,
an omen trickling from history.
kisses the stone on my grave
that holds down my corpse
and entrusts me to it.
is a luckless spell
who made me a creator
and carried on my creation.
She is my daughter.