About Refugees, By Refugees

Portrait of Refugee Meiirbek Sailanbek

Meiirbek Sailanbek

Pictures taken in:



Photo and interview by:




Mirza Durakovic

My dream is to become a writer,” says Meiirbek Sailanbek (36), a political refugee from Ürümqi, China. Aged 22, he emigrated to Kazakhstan to work for an oil company. He became a human rights activist when some of his colleagues, classmates and professors were imprisoned in China: “After this, I think we shouldn’t be silent, we should speak up.” Adopting two pseudonyms, Meiirbek published articles about what he calls “Chinese concentration camps”. Living with multiple identities was challenging: “When you speak you can’t make a mistake.” When the leader of his NGO was arrested, Meiirbek feared he would be next. “I’m scared every day,” he remembers feeling then. Media friends helped him travel to France, where he has lived since 2019. He is a keen photographer and studies English and French. He hopes to use his new language skills to continue writing articles about human rights injustices. “Some people be free because of media,” he says. “Even in the danger I will continue my work.”

Trigger Warning:

full interview

So hello, Meiirbek.

Can you introduce yourself?
Yes. OK.

So what’s your name? How old are you?
My name is Meiirbek. I’m thirty-six years old. I am born in Ürümqi, in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China, I stayed… I grew up in there, in Ürümqi city and stayed in there 22 years as I go to Kazakhstan and immigrate in Kazakhstan and work in Kazakhstan twelve years. After is my colleague and my classmate and my professor in university were arrest in China and the Chinese government. And so first I go to the Kazakhstan media and the television, I want to tell the story to them, but the Chinese, uh, Kazakhstan media says “If about the Chinese problem, we don’t want to touch them.” After I publish a story and the… write article and I use the nickname Erkin Azat. It’s… Erkin Azat names is “Freedom Freedom”. And I want to… My colleague, my classmate, my professor be free. And so I joined one human rights organization in Kazakhstan, named Atajurt Kazakh Human Rights organization, it’s NGO and I record another victims’ report.
Yes, and I recorded this victim’s situation and like some victim’s family come to our organization and they told their story: who’s my relative, why he be arrested in China, when he arrest in China, now where is he, which prison… And I will record this every day. We record this after this thousandth victim’s data, we send the United Nations and in… 2020. 2019? 2019 year. It’s our leader, his name is Serikzhan Bilash, be arrest by Kazakhstan police government and closed our bureau office. And this, and the Kazakhstan government also asked another volunteer.  Ask, “Where is Erkin Azat?”, because in the association I used another name, Tabigat, no one knows I am Erkin Azat. And my friend says the Kazakhstan government they want to arrest Erkin Azat because he report a lot of news article about China’s concentration camp. So I know this problem, I think “I am in Kazakhstan, it’s dangerous.” So I contact my friend and I go to France and Amnesty International and another media… Media helped me, for example New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press France24, they helped me. And I came here and I live in La Maison des Journalistes in the reporter house, two years. And now I am studying English and French. Yes, I want to develop my language.

OK, well, that’s very interesting. So you cover the whole… Your whole story. Just to speak about today, you said you are studying French and English. So this is what you’re doing during your days or what are you doing in general?
Yes, I want to continue my job. I want to continue to write articles in… when I come to France, Kazahkstan government and the Chinese government know I am Erkin Azat. And my, my, my parents and my two brothers in Kazakhstan. But my, my older brother and my sister in China, Ürümqi. And the Chinese government says if I continue to write the article, my, my relative will be go to jail. So I want to continue my article and it’s… If I will be active, my friends be safe.

So today you are not writing articles anymore?
Yes. Because if in, in… It’s a problem. If in Kazakhstan, I can face to face to meet these victims. Some people will be free from the concentration camp and come to Kazakhstan and I can meet face to face, make interview with the victim’s family and another problem. Yes. And he can told me. But in the France, I try to contact another new victims. But just worried me because I just go to the phone and just write, it’s… Worried. So I think if I, if I have a good French, good English, I write article, after another victim will maybe trust me and after contact me. Yes, I… It’s, uh. No, it’s my problem is language. I think it’s, if I have a good, good, good French, good language, I will continue write.

OK, and how would you describe your living conditions? Are you are you happy here or…
You know, just for… In the Maison des Journalistes?

Yeah. Here and also, I mean, in France. And how do you feel? 
Hmm. It’s, I think it’s… Before I think it’s in France is democracy 100 percent. But I came here, I, I, I saw some situation. It also has some problem. And, important for us, a very urgent problem is China. Chinese… France still keep with Chinese business, economic reason. And some Huawei, and the 5G… It’s very dangerous because when I in Kazakhstan before, we can use YouTube, Facebook, we can publish articles. Even against Kazakhstan government. No problem. It’s, it’s a dictator, but it’s better than China. You can you can see the YouTube. In China it’s no, it’s banned. And in, and… But it’s 2020, it’s this issue. Issue is very complicated. It’s in… Now you in, in the Kazakhstan you should be registered, your ID to your phone and your telephone card. If you’re not registered you can’t… You can’t use your telephone. And if you write article, say, against the government you can say problem and you will go to jail, you go prison. Yes. And you can’t… If you… You can’t registered, you can’t go use YouTube, Google just some… And it’s… In the Kazakhstan now use Chinese smart camera in the street and this camera take photo and you know information, all information. And at this time Kazakhstan become electronic dictator, totalitarian. And if France accepts Huawei, accepts the technology 5G, it will be like Kazakhstan situation. It’s dangerous.

And when you were in Kazakhstan, so as a human rights defender and activist, how did you feel? Were you scared?
Yes, I’m scared every day. I’m worried every day. Maybe one day I make an interview with the victims, maybe one day Kazakhstan police come to my home and my place and maybe arrest me, every every time ever. Because the Kazakhstan government, it’s so close to China, and the government don’t want to… Publish about the prisons… This negative information about China. So this is very dangerous. But because of us, some people be free because of media, because of… So I think I saved the life. So I think I should be continue. Yes.

This is what kept you continuing to fight. It’s because your work could save lives.
Yes. Yes. However, religion, ethnic, no, I just for this life, human right, it’s, it’s important.

So you started with your friends who were in prison, right? This, this is what made you start. And before that, where you were, like, involved politically?
Before, I also is follow this politics, but not much. And I am working in oil company 12 years. I’m beginning the oil field engineer. And then after five next, five years, I make, manager. My friend, my colleague also he is an engineer, my three colleagues – two colleagues is engineer and one colleague is also like me, manager. He can speak good English. He a manager and engineer and no, he go to jail and the Chinese government say this person needs re-education. This engineer, this manager, he can speak good English, good Chinese, but he should be re-education, after go to the factory. It’s illogic. It’s all, it’s…

So they were working with you in Kazakhstan, but sent to jail in China.
Yes. But this person before like me, I immigrated in Kazakhstan; I have a Kazakhstan nationality but my… my friend have not immigrate, just in the family in Kazakhstan. Yes.

So. So your friends were in China. Yes. When they were arrested and put into jail?
Yes. And there’s some some situations as Chinese call you: “Come, come to China and you have some problem, just some problem for your document, you can just come sign it after you can come,” and then some person says: “I go to a Chinese embassy, sign it, it’s no problem.” “No, no, you should be come back to China. You should…” Some people go to China, after, be arrest. For example, my, my, my father and the Chinese government also says my father should go back to China. But my father, no, my father says “No, sorry, I’m sick. I have problem. No, no, no. I still in Kazakhstan.”

OK, and can you talk a little bit more – you talked in the beginning about the events that led to your departure, to leaving your country. You were speaking about this organization that you were working with and when they arrested the director. So what happened to you exactly? How did you manage to… I mean, to take this decision to go away to France?
Uhm, in this organization?

Yeah. I mean, how did you feel, this… this sequence of events that led to your departure?
In the 2019 year, 10 March, our leader – his name is Serikzhan Bilash – he be arrest in Kazakhstan government. And the Kazakhstan government says: “This person says fake news.” And, some… After, we contact with Amnesty International and Amnesty International help us write an urgent letter for us and we organize it – still organize it, even though our other office is closed. But we are working in the outside and we are still working, but still even the danger… danger of us is… And we make organization signature. Told another person you should sign this letter, Amnesty International and we send the government, Kazakhstan government and another association. And after this, my friend says Chinese government – uh, no, Kazakhstan government – asks them “Where is Erkin Azat?” And is, says, “The Kazakhstan government want to also… want to arrest Erkin Azat.” And after, in the internet, I think it’s… Working in a Chinese embassy, some people, it’s… write article and it says “This liar, it’s a liar, Serikzhan Bilash we arrest and next we… This next the liar Erkin Azat will be arrest because he also published fake news.” Yes, and is… I think it’s because Kazakhstan government also want to arrest me and some writer, work for a Chinese embassy maybe, he also write article about me and says: “Next target is Erkin Azat.” I say: “I think I can’t stay in Kazakhstan anymore.”

How did you feel?
Yes, very… So, I can’t sleep. I can’t sleep. Yes, my family saw me: “Why? What happened? Why you sad?” I can’t tell my story. I can talk my… just like “Nothing, nothing.” But I told my friend and contact the organization. I told my situation and my friends say: “You should be go to European country.” And they said: “We help you, try to help you.” And also my friend, some people, some friend are still in Kazakhstan. So if… if my friend help me… For them, it’s also… it’s dangerous because Kazakhstan government also can arrest them.
But my friend says: “Don’t worry, you should be continue article. It’s important, very important. If Kazakhstan government arrest Erkin Azat that… and Serikzhan Bilash, no one can continue to talk about this situation in Chinese concentration camp.” So after I, I… When I come back to… come to France and I contacted the Amnesty International and the media and I, I still go to France 24, I make interview with them. And I make another interview. Yes, it’s very dangerous, when I stay in the border at an airport, I’m very worried. It’s, it’s very… And Kazakhstan government ask me: “Why you go to France?” I say “Just for travel, it’s nothing.” Just like that. “When you come back?” I say: “Just for 10 days I will come back, it’s just…” “Ok.” Because I use… Not to use my real name. If I use real name, maybe I am in the blacklist in Kazakhstan government. I can’t go.

So you had this identity Erkin Azat, not very many people knew who you were actually? Even your family didn’t know?
Yes. When you family, even my family, no, no, no.  In my family, no one know. Because I know… I know Kazakhstan is also dictator country also. I know it’s dangerous. So I, I keep this secret in my family. In my family I just talk no politics. And I just say another thing.

Okay, and how hard is it to have those two identities? Sometimes maybe it must be difficult?
Always. Yes, it’s difficult… It’s three, three character.

Three characters?
Yes. You should be, um, Meiirbek. You should be Tabigat in the organization and the human rights organization, and the evening you should be Erkin Azat. It’s… It’s very dangerous in the way you shouldn’t be, you don’t… When you speak you can’t make a mistake. Even the one word or even the organization, you can’t say “Oh, I’m Erkin Azat, no, I want…” No, I don’t, I not published my… Share my telephone because in this someone saw me “Oh, Erkin Azat!” It’s… You should… You should be… Keep clear, clearly.

How did you manage to keep your head clear?
Yes… When you… When you want to say something, when you… When I do something, first time I ask me: “Who I am? I am Erkin Azat? Or I’m Meiirbek? Or I am Tabigat?” After I confirm… No, it’s, it’s… Yes…

And when you arrived in France, you were only one identity or did you still keep…?
Yes, in the… No, I use both names: Erkin Azat and Meiirbek. Meiirbek it’s my real name and Erkin Azat it’s my nickname. Because the Erkin Azat name is a very famous, very… So if I say “It’s Meiirbek”, maybe some person don’t know who is Meiirbek. So I use both names: Meiirbek, Erkin Azat.

OK, interesting. And regarding your feelings, when you left your country, how did you feel in the plane and when you arrived in France? How did you feel?
It’s very… says it’s very, very sad and very dangerous maybe because Kazakhstan government is not like China. It’s also a dictator but some people from Kazakhstan and some refugee, but the French government is not accept because it’s… The French government think it’s Kazakhstan is a safety country. Not like China, not like Russia, no. And I, I… My friend told me some friend from, for example Morocco or Egypt, some refugee, not be accepted in France or in another Europe country. So I am… Because I have Kazakhstan nationality I think in the border I was also worried, maybe… The government not accepting, maybe French government don’t believe that. Maybe says: “You Kazakhstan, you can come back Kazakhstan! It’s a safety country!” Maybe. So it’s…

So you were a bit afraid that you would be rejected?
Afraid. Yes, I’m afraid, I’m afraid. Yes.

And how was it, you know, getting used to… to living in France? Were you ever in Europe before that?
No, no. It was my first time.

OK, so what did you think of the people around you and everything?
Yes, I think the people is very kindful. I also want to thank my French teacher, Martine. She’s… Before working at Le Monde. She is also a journalist and she’s very interesting. Yes, every Friday and Saturday come back to our Bibliothèque and teach us French every day, every day. And I participate in another NGO, WERO and EachOne. And now I, I am studying in Sciences Po Paris, French and English every day. Every day. I think it’s good. And it’s, this… And the people, I think it’s very kindful, very helpful people.

So you feel good?
I feel good, but… When I go to, um, last year, I go to a manifestation (protest) and I participate one manifestation. There were two manifestations. First day is for Hong Kong, second day for, Uyghur. After I joined to participate in the manifestation on the second day, and one Chinese, I think it’s working for, for embassy. Like secretary, I don’t know. One person, Chinese person, follow me. When I go to this place, he follow me and take my photo and… and after he come close face to face, ask me: “You joined this first day manifestation?” Like, ask me and I’m very afraid, very worried and after my friend come here and he saw my friend and he was gone. And I told my friend, my friend said “You should, you should be call police, police!” After it, can’t find… And another… Second, another manifestation also we saw some person photo me and follow me. Follow us. And we… After we told the police, the préfecture (French Police). The préfecture want to arrest the people, the people was run… Gone. Yes. Even in France I was in danger, yes. Because there is also, have Chinese power. It’s… but even in the danger I will continue my work, yes. My job.

So, is there anything that you do besides studying and your job? Is there any hobby that you have? Maybe you like reading or watching films, or is there something else?
My hobby is make photo, it’s my hobby because when I take a photo… I can go to any place and you can take a photo and I, if I stress…

If you’re stressed…
Stress. If you have stress or you have a problem, you can go to the place, make a photo, after you can be happy. You feel good. Yes. I think it’s my hobby. Yes, and I can… There’s a lot of photograph journalist, refugee journalist. And when I take a picture and I talk with them, “How can I take a picture is better” and my friend told me the technique, “You should be take… You should be better, then, you should be better.” I think it’s good experience. Mhm. Yes.


So thank you very much, Meiirbek, and I just have one last question regarding your dreams. What were your dreams before your friends were arrested, you know, which led to your activism. And if you can tell it as a quote, like “Before my friends were arrested, my dream was…”
Before in the school, I want to – I have a dream. I want to be a writer, yes, before my friend arrest, also I want to be a writer. I want to write book. But if I write in Kazakh language, maybe it’s not publish. Yes, and when I came here, I think, I good – make good and hard work and develop my French and English, after I want to write my book, my story and another. I want to be a writer.

So can you say “Today my dream is to become a writer”?
My dream is to become a writer.

Yes. OK, thank you very much, Meiirbek. Is there something you want to say regarding refugees in general? Is something else you want to add or have you said everything?
Right now it’s very dangerous to to be ignorant about what the Chinese government is doing. So whatever – which origins, which nationality or which ethnicity you belong to, everyone should should stand up to fight for the freedom for the, for the human rights for everyone, not only for those people who is in the concentration camp in China, because everyone will probably be the next one.

OK, OK, thank you. Thank you very much. So, Meiirbek, just one thing. Before your friends were arrested, even before that. How… Were you aware of what was going on in terms of oppression? What made you realize also that there was something wrong?
So when I travelled with my father, in 2009, we were, we were crossing the border between China and Kazakhstan and the police checked my computer and find some documents, which was about anti communist. So I was held in prison for 10 days back then. Yeah.

Okay, do you want to talk about this experience?
So the police entered and – interroger, comment on dit? (How do you say it, “interrogate”?)

Interrogated me for two days. And then for total I was held for ten days. And back then, the prison and the – garde à vue et la prison c’est différent (custody and jail is different).

The custody and jail.
Yes. So I was held in custody and I saw the situation in the prison because they were very close. So I sleep and eat and stay with them for doing some work with them during ten days. And all they know, all they have every day for… I’m so sorry. My French and English…

Do it in French maybe?
All we can eat for every day, is only a carrot and kind of a bread. So that’s what we can eat every day.

OK, yeah. And how did you feel?
Uh, during the ten days the living condition was like hell and after I was… I got out, I couldn’t even eat anything for a few days. Yeah. And it caused me like influence, very negative after that.

And the police warn me and threatened me that the next time when you, when you come back from Kazakhstan, you need… You have to be our spy, you need to do some dirty job for us. So that’s why ever since I never been back to China.

In 2009?
Yes. So that’s why from the moment I’ve decided to immigrate to Kazakhstan. Yeah. Before this… This thing, I always thought that the Chinese government or China is a democratic and lawful country. But after this I think… Before I think that as long as I works hard for my own living and economic in China grows better, everything will get better. Yeah. And law also better I think.

Okay. Yeah.
But after hearing the bad things from my teachers, my colleagues who were all arrested from the government, I know that everything is over. Before I think keeping silence is to keep everything cool, calm. But after this, I think we shouldn’t be silent, we should speak up. Yeah. That’s why even I’m threatened all the time, I’m being followed all the time, I continues to do what I think is right to do.

OK, yeah. OK, wow, very interesting. Thank you very much Meiirbek. Just a question on photography. Because now… As something that makes you escape out of this. Can you, can you tell us maybe about one particular photo that you like – that you took and you like – or one particular thing that you like in photography, maybe to shoot people or to shoot landscapes? I don’t know. Can you tell us more about this?
In fact, I have joined photography formation.

Training program? Workshop?
Workshop, yes, and I took some lessons there. And I met a lot of people who are interested in photography and they have an exhibition. Last Sunday or Saturday. And I thought – I think it’s very interesting because I have my own idea and it’s related to my own culture.

OK, yeah. So maybe if he can… If Meiirbek can speak to us about this, I’m still recording this, because we won’t see the photo obviously on the audio.
The subject of this series of photos is religion, different religions. DIfferent religion for peace. So you can see all the, all the… how do you say it?

Participants in different religion in like, in temples, in mosques.

In a church?

In a Buddhist temple?
Even though they have different religions, but they all pray for the peace. The same peace.

OK, very interesting.
So and as I told you that the exhibition was last Saturday.

So, so thank you, Meiirbek. I just saw the pictures that you showed me, which is a slideshow with pictures that you took and there’s apples in the picture. And can you tell us what’s the symbol behind the apple?
Yes, this is sym- apple and I live in Kazakhstan, city is Almaty, this Almaty means Apple City, is in Kazakhstan. It’s apple, a symbol of Kazakh. So I make this picture series. It’s about one apple. You come to Paris, symbol of me, one Kazakh come to Paris and living here, studying here, try to work and after, he make one family. It’s, it’s, it’s… I think it’s my home. And then I told my story in the second picture series is a different religion edition for one piece, piece. Is this where I took four different picture in the different religion place in the mosque, in the, in the church and in the tomb. And I, and I took the picture of the people praying. And I, mmm, this theme is different if we have a different religion. And but we all, all pray for peace. I think it’s, it’s for peace. I’m saying.

Ok. Thank you very much, Meiirbek.
Merci. I’ll see you.

Many 1000 Dreams interviews were not conducted in English. Their translation has not always been performed by professional translators. Despite great efforts to ensure accuracy, there may be errors.