February 28, 2023

PLOWE | Human Rights Activism at Cornell: Interview with Suha Khan ’24

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On Saturday, Feb. 11, Cornell students rallied in Washington, D.C. with politicians, community leaders and students from other universities to reiterate the demands of the Uyghur Policy Act and Uyghur Human Rights Protection Act in response to the genocide in China. 

Their stand reflects an important statement of solidarity amongst those who value human rights. The rally had support from The Hong Kong Student Association, Cornell Chinese in Ithaca, Free Tibet, Free Uyghur Now, Athenai Institute, Uyghur Human Rights Association, the Uyghur American Association and others.

I spoke with Suha Khan ’24, a Cornell Interfaith Council leader who drummed up support for the rally. Zoë MeiLing Johnson-Berman ’24, who fostered solidarity amongst organizations through social media networking, also joined us for the conversation. This interview is lightly edited for clarity.

Emma Plowe: Before we talk about the rally, I’d love to hear about the Interfaith Council.

Suha Khan: I feel like when people hear the word faith, they think the group is exclusive. But the Interfaith Council doesn’t only discuss faith, but also spirituality. Interfaith is open to people from different backgrounds to connect with each other. Like, we recently had a poetry night. Through poems, people expressed their own personal aura — like the way they feel their spirit. Some people just read poems they wrote about love.

The group as a whole wanted to take action when it came to the Uyghur genocide. Muslims, Buddhists, Christians — everyone deserves human rights. It was imperative for Interfaith Council to take part in it.

EP: How did you first hear about the genocide? How did it become an issue that was important to you that you wanted to express to others?

SK: I found out about it in 2019, a month before Covid. I was researching current events for a high school class, and one article on the Uyghur Genocide came up that didn’t really have any views. And I was like, how is it possible that there’s a genocide happening and no one knows about it and there’s been 1.8 million people detained?

Essentially, it’s a second Holocaust. The whole reason you take history in school is so you can prevent horrific events from happening again. And it just seems like we haven’t learned from history, or people just choose to turn a blind eye to what’s happening. During the times of Nazi Germany, the U.S. government was basically indifferent to the Nazi atrocities. They very well could have prevented millions of lives from being lost from the Holocaust, but they didn’t care. And we’re seeing this happen again.

When my teacher said it is not our responsibility, I was upset, having also learned about Japanese Internment during World War II. The U.S. owes the world a real attention to human rights. I got really passionate and I started reaching out to organizations online.

When we found out about the Xinjiang fires on Nov. 24 when so many people died, that’s really what prompted us to organize the protest because after Tiananmen Square, that was the first time people were protesting on the streets in years.

EP: How was the rally?

SK: Thankfully, we got quite a few speakers and a few of them are survivors of the concentration camps. We had over 75 people come and support us.

I think people don’t realize that Uyghurs don’t have the opportunity to share their stories, whereas during other human rights atrocities like in Ukraine, there is an unequal amount of sympathy. More Ukrainians are sharing their stories online, I think. Whereas if you’re a Uyghur, if you share your story, you’re at risk of having your whole family potentially murdered at a concentration camp. Uyghurs don’t even have refugee status.

I’m not Uyghur, but it’s everyone’s job to help each other. And I think oftentimes we forget that for Black Lives Matter people were like, oh, I’m not Black, why should I be there? But we know that we need to show up in numbers for our government to pay attention.

EP: How else are you spreading the call for awareness and support?

SK: We actually set up a table in Mann Library, and when we would try to talk to people, they would just walk away after seeing it. Our work is getting people to realize that there are real people who are suffering and it would only take 10 minutes to call your local representative and raise the issues so it can get discussed.

People don’t realize how much power they have as individuals to make change. The Congressman at the rally said that Congress will only talk about an issue if they get enough phone calls, if they have enough people reaching out to them about a certain topic.

I think the media does a terrible job covering issues in other countries that are not European or BIPOC issues. Like with the flood in Pakistan, it was known in our school, but I don’t think news outlets covered it to the extent that it should have been talked about. And other genocides that have happened — like in Rwanda or the ongoing Rohingya genocide — no one even knows about them.

Emma Plowe is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Suha Khan ’24 can be reached at [email protected]. With Gratitude runs every other Tuesday this semester.