When the precocious young Rushan Turkel came to America, it had a profound effect on her life. The 14-year-old started studying hard in school, working towards one day going to Harvard University and becoming a surgeon.
“In China, I used to get all F’s,” Rushan said. “Now, I get all A’s.”
The bad grades in her past might have something to do with the turmoil in the home she left behind. Rushan is a member of the ethnic group known as the Uyghurs, who have been persecuted by the Chinese government for many years. In Rushan’s former home, the Xinjiang region of China, the worsening conflict between the Chinese government and the Uyghurs made it tough to thing about school, or anything else.
“In [the Xinjiang region], you can’t really study. You can’t get an education. There are too many bad influences,” Turkel said.
Because of Chinese human rights abuses and the resulting violence, Rushan joined her mother, Arzibul, in the United States, and was granted asylee status. To get Rushan her green card, the family came to Just Neighbors. Just Neighbors took on Rushan’s case and helped her complete her application for permanent resident status. Rushan said of her attorney, Sarah Milad: “She was really nice and really funny. She helped us with everything.”
When the green card arrived in the mail, Rushan said she was pleased because it put her closer to achieving her goals. For one thing, having a green card makes Rushan eligible for many college scholarships and other benefits she would not otherwise have been able to receive. Now, the only application Rushan will have to worry about is the one she will one day send to Harvard.
Who are the Uyghurs?
The Uyghurs (also known as Uighurs) are an ethnic group originating in Xinjiang, a desert region in West China. Ethnically and culturally, however, they share more in common with the people of Central Asian countries like Kyrgystan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. Most practice Sunni Islam and their language (also called Uyghur) is most closely related to Turkish.
Since the ’90’s, increasing numbers of Han (ethnic Chinese) have resettled in Xinjiang, especially in its capital city, Urumqi. The economic disparities and political and ethnic differences between the Uyghurs and the Han have caused tension and episodes of violence. A particularly violent outburst occurred in July of 2009, when a Uyghur protest against the Chinese government led to clashes between Uyghurs, Han people, and Chinese police forces, leading to hundreds of deaths.
Uyghur activist claim the death tolls are due to China’s use of excessive and antagonistic force against the Uyghur people. They also accuse the Chinese government of discriminating against the Uyghur people economically and curtailing their freedom of speech and religion. The Chinese government has also imprisoned Uyghurs for criticizing the government’s policies.
Uyghurs and Just Neighbors
There are over eight million Uyghurs living in China. Most estimates suggest that an additional 300,000-600,000 Uyghurs live outside China. The majority of them live in Central Asian countries such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. The Uyghurs represent a tiny minority in the United States, numbering in the low thousands. However, the Washington, D.C. region has one of the largest Uygher populations in the US. It is home to the Uyghur American Association, which advocates for human rights issues and hosts events for Uyghurs to celebrate their culture.
Despite their low numbers in America, Just Neighbors has quite a bit of experience working with Uyghurs and solving issues they face. In 2010, Just Neighbors had 22 Uyghur clients, and in January and February of this year the organization has served five more. Most of these clients, like Rushan, are asylees who needed help applying for adjustment to legal permanent resident status. These numbers suggest that Just Neighbors is one of the leading organizations that handles Uyghur green card applications nationwide.
Around the Office
Just Neighbors is growing! We are in the process of expanding into the two adjacent office suites at our main office in Falls Church. The new space will give the organization four more office rooms, allowing for more meetings with clients and an ability to host more volunteers.
When Just Neighbors moved to its current location in September 2008, there were typically 5-6 people in the office each day. But we have begun to bust at the seams, with 10-11 people now in the office on a given day. This is mainly due to an increased role of volunteers, including volunteer attorneys. The new offices, which should be ready within two weeks, will provide workspace for volunteers that will allow us to serve more clients.
New office in progress
Staff and volunteers in front of hole in wall
Just Neighbors is grateful for grants from the Meyer Foundation, the Arlington Community Foundation, and the Mount Olivet Foundation.
Volunteer of the Month
We are proud to honor Toni Machowsky as our volunteer of the month. Toni, who received her law degree from the New England School of Law in 2005, has maintained a caseload at Just Neighbors since January. Three days per week she works with clients, including asylees and refugees applying for their green cards, U visas, a Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) case, and some other complicated cases. She has also attended appointments with Immigration to gather client records and find missing pieces of cases. She is currently looking for full-time employment in which she can continue practicing immigration law.
Written to her Just Neighbors attorney
I just want to write a quick note to let you know how much I
appreciated your hard work. It’s rare to find a person
with whom you can trust with your most personal thing whom make a
true difference in this world. Thank you for providing
such wonderful service, I don’t know what I would have done without
you. Thank you for all your hard work. I
really appreciate it.