After Guantanamo, Uyghur Cooks Pizza in Albania

Abu Bakker Qassim, an ethnic Uyghur, spent four-and-a-half years as a detainee at Guantanamo Bay. A BBC report from last summer tells the story of Qassim’s flee from China, and how he ended up in U.S. custody:

It is an extraordinary journey, and one which has left Qassim an exile, separated permanently from his family in China.

When he first left the Uighur homeland, Xinjiang, he was heading for Turkey, where he planned to get a job in a leather factory, and then send for his family.

Crossing first into Central Asia he made his way south to Pakistan, where he applied for a visa to travel through Iran. While waiting, he says, he went to stay in a “Uighur village” across the border in Afghanistan.

But the village happened to be near Tora Bora, and this was the autumn of 2001, not long after the 9/11 attacks. The US starting bombing suspected militant targets, one of which, it appears, was the “Uighur village”.

Qassim and his friends hid at first in caves, then crossed snow-covered mountain passes to Pakistan. Villagers greeted them as guests – then sold them for bounty to US forces.

PRI’s The World has more of Qassim’s story, telling of the contrast between his expectations and initial impressions of life in Albania, how pizza led him to his livelihood, and the stigma that he carries around after having been a terrorist suspect:

[…]Qassim actually knew something about Albania, growing up in western China. Chairman Mao and Albania’s communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, forged close ties in the 1970s.

The result was that people in China heard a lot of Albania and its culture, especially through Albanian movies that were dubbed into Chinese.

“I had this idea that Albania would be a huge country because when I was young, I would see many [Albanian] movies on Chinese TV because of the strong relationship at the time,” Qassim says.

But when he arrived, Qassim says he had trouble believing he was in Albania, in part, because Tirana seemed too small to be the capital of a country.

“I looked at a map to find Albania. And I couldn’t find it. I asked people, “Can you point at Albania on the map?” and what they showed me was a tiny dot.”

The Albania that Qassim encountered had a changed a lot since the 1970s. The country had become a democracy, and it was also no longer an officially atheist state. In fact, the majority of Albanians are Muslim.

Another thing Qassim didn’t know was that Tirana is teeming with pizza parlors. He’d never even heard of pizza before he arrived, but he wandered into a pizzeria and somehow managed to order a pie — without speaking Albanian.

“It was delicious, and the owner didn’t charge me for it as a sign of respect,” Qassim says.

That first taste eventually inspired Qassim to become a pizza-maker. He now works part-time at a Halal pizzeria in Tirana.

“This isn’t a hard job, but it gives you pleasure when people enjoy the pizza you make, when they give you a tip,” Qassim says as he makes his speciality, the Mix Pizza, which is basically the works with a few regional touches: Albanian smoked beef and Bosnian sausage.

His newfound culinary craft also helped him adjust to life in Albania. For the first two years, he struggled with the notoriously difficult language despite taking classes. Once he started working at the pizzeria, Qassim says his Albanian improved considerably.

[…]Qassim, though, might be wise to avoid sounding critical of the US in Albania — an overwhelmingly pro-American country that’s hosting the Uighurs at the request of the US.

Qassim also can’t leave Albania because he’s not a citizen and doesn’t have a passport. And if he were to return to China, he would almost certainly be arrested.

Click through to hear audio of the original broadcast.

While Qassim is stuck in Tirana, Human Rights Watch has accused Malaysia of refusing to grant six Uyghurs political asylum, and deporting them back to China. The Guardian reports:

An international rights group has criticised Malaysia for deporting six ethnic Uighur Chinese who were seeking asylum, saying it has put the men’s lives in danger.

New York-based Human Rights Watch said the forced return of the men toChina on 31 December was a grave violation of international laws.

Muslim minority Uighurs repatriated to China from elsewhere in the past have expressed fear of long jail terms or the death penalty.

Citing credible sources, Human Rights Watch said the six men were held earlier last year for allegedly attempting to leave Malaysia using false passports. It said the men registered with the UN refugee agency in Kuala Lumpur while in detention and were to have their claims reviewed when they were deported. […]

Also see “In Xinjiang, Uyghur Identity Under Siege,” via CDT.

February 8, 2013 8:52 PM
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