(RNS) — “We’re neurosurgeons, of course we’re never home in time for dinner,” one doctor said on TikTok recently, following a tongue-in-cheek trend on the social media site in which users list their group’s stereotypes or defining characteristics.
“I’m a Costco girl, of course I eat the free sample,” said another creator in a video with 3.5 million views on Instagram.
“We’re from New Jersey, of course we don’t pump our own gas,” Kevin Jonas quipped on the Jonas Brothers’ TikTok account.
Last weekend, a post with more serious undertones by a little-known group called the Uyghur Youth Initiative joined the viral trend.
“We’re Uyghurs, of course we’re suffering from a genocide in 2024,” Mukaddes Memet, 18, said in a video posted by the German-based organization.
Filmed following a recent pro-Uyghur protest in Munich, the video has since had more than 3 million views on TikTok and 7.5 million hits on Instagram. It features Memet along with Amina Tursun, 21, and Esma Memtimin, 20, bundled in coats and scarves and walking along snow-covered city streets.
“We’re Uyghurs, of course we’re always late,” Tursun said to the camera.
“We’re Uyghurs, of course we go to protests instead of school,” said Memtimin.
“We’re Uyghurs, of course we don’t know if our families are alive or not,” said Memet.
China has long been criticized for targeting the Uyghurs, ethnically Turkic people who are predominantly Sunni Muslim. Many live in what Uyghurs call East Turkistan, but China, which colonized the region in 1949, calls it “Xinjiang,” meaning “New Territory.” In response to the Uyghur independence movement, in 2014 President Xi Jinping began detaining reportedly more than 1 million Uyghurs in prison-like re-education camps for alleged infractions, ranging from having more than two children to wearing a headscarf.
Former detainees and human rights groups have alleged that the government subjected Uyghurs to forced sterilization, sexual abuse, psychological abuse and forced labor. Eyewitnesses have also reported extreme surveillance measures in the region, and researchers estimate that authorities have desecrated or destroyed over 10,000 mosques. The United States, Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have described China’s actions as genocide — an accusation China has unilaterally denied. While China’s government has said their “vocational education and training centers” have closed, some experts have doubted those claims. In November, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom condemned U.S. corporations for operating in China amid “ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.”
For Tursun, Memtimin and Memet, calling attention to the genocide is part of their everyday routine.
“It’s constantly in the background, because you cannot turn it off. If you are an activist, there’s no break. As an Uyghur especially, it will never stop,” Memtimin told RNS in a recent zoom call from Frankfurt, Germany. “Even if we’re not at a protest, even though we’re not posting a video right now or planning the next workshop, there is still some kind of pressure, saying, you have to do something now.”
A student by day, Memtimin helped found the Uyghur Youth Initiative in 2022. Since then, the group has grown to over 40 German youth activists between the ages of 14-23, with Uyghur, German, Kurdish and Turkish backgrounds. Before forming an official organization, the activists coordinated the #WhatIfItHappenedToYou campaign in spring 2022. The effort featured full-length mirrors on city streets in Frankfurt, Munich and Cologne, Germany, with provocative quotes and QR codes leading to educational resources about the Uyghurs.
In addition to raising awareness, Memtimin said one of the group’s major goals is to convince German Parliament to recognize the Chinese government’s actions as genocide. To that end, the activists host regular protests and workshops, and some members have been invited to the United Nations in Geneva and to German Parliament. They’ve also hosted events, including a poetry slam focused on the topic of human rights, and much of their activism takes place online via Instagram and TikTok.
While the group includes members of all and no faiths, Memtimin, Tursun and Memet told RNS that, for them personally, their Muslim faith inspires and sustains much of their activism.
“Because of the faith I have, I know that justice exists, but maybe not in this world, but in the next world,” Memtimin told RNS. “The almighty God is the most just one, and sooner or later there is going to be justice. I think our mission here in this world is to bring as much justice as possible, to fight for it, because it’s the right thing. It’s what every human person deserves.”
She added that not knowing her relatives living in East Turkistan has left a “big gap” in her family that even her parents’ stories can’t fill, and said it’s difficult to know “there are horrible things happening to them just because of their religion.”
“It just makes me think that it’s my responsibility as a person who’s living in Germany, in a democracy, to do something because I have the rights,” said Memtimin. “And not because I’m Muslim, or because I’m Uyghur. It’s because, first of all, we’re all humans. You don’t even have to believe in God, but if you believe in humanity, that should be enough to raise your voice for other humans and do something.”
Tursun said that while her main motivation for her activism is thinking of her family, her faith gives her the hope to continue.
“My faith follows me everywhere. Every decision in my life, I’m doing thinking of my religion,” said Tursun. “I have this trust in my God that he will support us, and one day he will be there and help us. If I didn’t have this kind of hope, I don’t think I could do this.”
Despite the hate comments they receive both in person and online, Tursun, Memet and Memtimin are undeterred. They’re encouraged by how quickly the Uyghur Youth Initiative has gained traction online — Memtimin said the group reached 2,000 Instagram followers in their first year and has added over 42,000 more since last weekend’s viral video — and they will continue to call for accountability measures, including boycotting Chinese products.
“Speak up, and don’t be afraid to say something or do something. Be brave,” said Memet.