D.C. restaurant owner brings awareness to China’s treatment of Uyghurs

Media Credit: Daria Nastasia | Staff Photographer

Hamid Kerim said he still has family back in Xinjiang facing injustices implemented by the Chinese government.

Just a few steps away from the Cleveland Park Metro stop sits Dolan Uyghur Restaurant, a gateway to Uyghur culture, history and cuisine.

The Uyghur people – a Turkic, predominantly Muslim group living in Xinjiang, China, which is also referred to as East Turkistan by many Uyghurs – have been the victims of a human rights crisis, orchestrated by the Chinese government, that the U.S. State Department and many experts say is genocide. I talked with Hamid Kerim, the owner of Dolan Uyghur Restaurant, to hear about his experience escaping Xinjiang, immigrating to the United States and creating a restaurant to raise awareness about the Uyghur genocide.

Customers are greeted by tapestries, art depicting everyday Uyghur life and the herbal scent of freshly steeped tea when they first walk into Kerim’s restaurant. I was served the restaurant’s most popular dish, korma chop, a fried noodle dish with flavorful spices, seared beef and grilled vegetables as I sat down with Kerim to hear his story.

Before immigrating to the United States, Kerim studied to be a pharmacist at East Turkistan Medical University and created a company while in college. Kerim said he had 15 businesses and 100 employees, and he conducted business among China, Turkey and several Central Asian countries.

“I had a very beautiful life in my country before,” Kerim said. “But now everything has changed.”

Kerim left China, immigrating to the United States with his wife and two children in April 2017. He said he didn’t speak English when he arrived in the country, which made settling in the United States difficult.

“I always pray to God, pray to Allah, give me this new life in this free country,” Kerim said.

While he managed to emigrate from China, Kerim said he still has family living in Xinjiang who are suffering from the injustices committed by the Chinese government. The Uyghurs still living in Xinjiang are spied on by a draconian system of surveillance, their culture is besieged and millions are unjustly detained, enduring indoctrination, torture and forced labor.

Kerim said one of his brothers was unfairly sentenced to 20 years in jail, and his brother’s wife was sentenced to seven years in jail, leaving their three children to be raised by Kerim’s mother.

Kerim said he is hesitant to contact his family members because he has spoken with media outlets about the Uyghur genocide and is afraid the Chinese police may punish his family if they know Kerim has contacted them. He said when he does talk to his mother, he is fearful to talk about politics or use Muslim phrases, such as salaam alaikum, which means “peace be unto you.”

“So, I don’t like to really contact my family because I don’t like to give my family problems,” he said.

Kerim said through his restaurant he wants to be a voice for the Uyghur people and teach Americans about Uyghur culture and the genocide.

“So I do this business not just for money,” he said. “I want to change my voice for Uyghur voice. I want American people to know what’s Uyghur culture, what’s Uyghur food culture.”

Kerim said he has also helped other Uyghurs transition to the United States, giving them jobs at the restaurant while they are finishing their education or searching for opportunities in their career fields.

He said media attention, Americans’ growing interest in Uyghur culture and his restaurants’ fresh and healthy dishes have led to the growth of his business, resulting in the opening of a second location in Chantilly, Va. But he said his dream is to open Uyghur restaurants in all 50 states and introduce Uyghur culture, history and cuisine to Americans across the country while also raising awareness about the Uyghur genocide.

Kerim said raising awareness in the United States about the genocide is crucial because he said U.S. support could save the Uyghur people from complete annihilation. He said if the Uyghurs don’t have America’s support, the Chinese government may implement much harsher policies toward the Uyghur people.

“I am not a politician – I am a businessman,” he said. “So from this point, if I can help Uyghurs keep Uyghur culture, keep Uyghur food culture, this is my job and this is my dream.”

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