Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the three-pillared motto upon which France was established, attracts activists from around the world who want to build upon these values to Paris.
But the ongoing pandemic has put many social movements on hold, blocking channels to voice issues of great importance. Despite these challenges, dissidents abroad are carrying on with their agenda of political reform in their home countries.
Three activists of various backgrounds but who are based in Paris shared with The Paris Globalist their stories that brought them to the city, united under the commitment to resistance against dictatorship and the pursuit of freedom.
“I won’t be over-optimistic nor over-pessimistic. I only do what I can do, to change the way people think”—Meiirbek
Originally from the Xinjiang province of China but having later become a citizen of Kazakhstan, Meiirbek Sailanbek, a journalist, began his life in exile in Paris two years ago.
As a dissenter abroad, it is tricky to maintain the connection with loved ones back home. Out of fear of being tracked down by the Chinese government via communication devices, Meiirbek never replies to the messages in the family group chat on WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of WhatsApp.
“Since I have been moving around recently, I deleted my WeChat,” Meiirbek said.
He has two cellphones with him – one that he frequently uses and has no Chinese apps on it, and a second that does not even have a SIM card and that he only uses with the WiFi at his dormitory at Maison des Journalistes.
“During this move, I also deleted all applications and removed the battery from my phone. I am worried that the Chinese government is going to find out my new address by tracking my mobiles.”
Today, his sister and oldest brother still live in Urumqi, Xinjiang Province. Worried that his activism abroad might threaten their safety, Meiirbek has long removed their contacts from his phone.
“If my brother and sister need to contact me, they will have to pass on the messages to my parents in Kazakhstan and ask them to forward me the words. Sometimes, they ask me to stop writing negative articles on China [and say] I should praise their country instead.”
The Kazakh government is amongst those with an extradition treaty with Beijing. This makes it dangerous for Meiirbek to go back to Kazakhstan as the treaty allows for him to be arrested in Kazakhstan and transferred to China for his activism abroad.
However, with help from journalists he is acquainted with and Amnesty International, the French government recognised his refugee status and is about to issue him a titre de séjour (residence permit).
Despite the difficulty of learning the French language, after taking language lessons offered by various NGOs, Meiirbek is now able to have basic conversations in daily life. He wishes to continue improving both his English and French proficiency, as he believes that this will increase the variety of his information sources on humanitarian issues worldwide.
“The French society is based on the values of freedom, equality, and fraternity. I chose to come here [over other places] to learn the language and really understand the history of the French Revolution as well as the ideas of French philosophy better. I think it is really going to be helpful for me to further work on humanitarian actions,” he told The Paris Globalist.
Having lived in Kazakhstan for 12 years, Meiirbek witnessed how the Kazakh government gradually tilted to China and tightened the restrictions on freedom of expression.
“We used to be able to browse websites such as Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp without any restrictions. However, mobile phone and computer registrations were put in place in 2019 when I was leaving the country. Without registration, you cannot get access to the websites.” He explained how other measures taken by the Kazakh government, such as limiting the speed of the internet, have inhibited the circulation of social criticism and interfered with the national elections.
On top of that, the Kazakh government has started implementing facial recognition systems in transportation systems. Meiirbek worries that the influence of Beijing on other countries, hindering the privacy of citizens and freedom of expression, will only worsen.
“I think the Chinese government tends to influence other countries’ policies with gradual and accumulating changes, instead of a sudden movement,” he explained, underscoring his concern about the potential threats residing in the recent EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI).
There are about 1.5 million Kazakhs living in China. Meiirbek pointed out that sometimes Kazakhs living in Xinjiang were subject to discrimination from other ethnic groups. Yet, even after moving to Kazakhstan, he did not find a sense of belonging and solidarity. He realized that people there viewed him and his family merely as the descendants of the refugees who fled the country during the great famine in 1933 caused by the policies of the Soviet Union.
He thought that living in Kazakhstan would make him feel at home – instead, his feelings of alienation strengthened. Now, in France, the stigma around being a refugee has hardly left his life.
“I am constantly in the marginalised community, so neither nationalism nor religion [resonate with me].
“We are never under the spotlight, but, like so many others, we are also [living beings] with emotions and aspirations.”
In Paris, Meiirbek is relentlessly trying to connect with the French media, informing them of the situations of the concentration camps in Xinjiang. Recently, he had the opportunity to be interviewed by France Culture. On top of that, he has sent out numerous messages regarding the victims of the suppression to the United Nations.
“Even though the Chinese government threatened my family in China, demanding that I shut my mouth, I will continue pursuing my aspirations,” said Meiirbek. “Regardless of their race or religion, those who suffer from the oppression are all my relatives, and I will continue to [speak up] for them.”
“It is my duty to continue to fight against the colonisation of my country”—Tenam
Born in India in the first year after his parents fled Tibet, Tenam used to live in a refugee camp for Tibetans in exile.
“Our house was made of bamboo shacks, so sometimes we call ourselves the bamboo generation,” he recalled.
After finishing his studies, he moved to Nepal for several years before going back to Dharamsala, India, to join the Tibetan government in exile, where he also met his wife.
“Sometimes I think I have no other choice when I see the price that my parents paid to be free,” says Tenam while talking about his motivation to fight for the rights of the Tibetans.
His father fought against the Chinese People’s Liberation Army upon their arrival by forming a group that spent months resisting the takeover. His father used to tell Tenam stories about this time, which impacted Tenam’s later commitment to the sovereignty of Tibet.
Tenam has been living in France since 2006. He works for NGO Aide à l’enfance Tibétaine, helping young Tibetans who grew up in exile in India and Nepal get a good education by raising funds to pay their school fees, for example.
He also pointed out that there is a growing number of elderlies who fled Tibet and do not have a family in exile. “We try to help them by sending monthly allowances,” he told The Paris Globalist.
Thanks to the education he received, offered in Tibetan, Tenam is equipped with deep knowledge of the Tibetan culture and the Buddhist philosophy, making it possible for him to contribute to the perseverance of the Tibetan heritage abroad. He told The Paris Globalist that the Tibetan community in France is largely elderly, but these demographics are changing as new generations of Tibetans are being born in France. The Tibetan community in France, according to Tenam, has skyrocketed from just 250 members in 2006, to anywhere from 7,000 to 8,000 today.
When asked how the Tibetan community in France bonds and organizes events, Tenam explained that Tibetans keep in touch with each other notably through the Tibet Office in Paris, the de facto embassy of the Tibetan government in exile. With the expansion of the community, Tenam also pointed out that there are now many associations representing different regions of Tibet, such as Kham, Amdo, and Central Tibet.
The Tibetans in Paris typically convene for cultural events, including the annual Himalaya Festival, the Losar (the Tibetan New Year), and the birthday of the Dalai Lama. March 10th is a particularly important day for the Tibetans in exile to remember, for that was the day of the Tibetan National Uprising against the Chinese invasion that led the Dalai Lama to go in exile.
“As a Tibetan, I feel that it is my duty to continue to fight against the colonisation of my country by China,” said Tenam on his perception of his role to pursue the freedom of Tibet, himself, and his people.
“I enjoy speaking the truth. It in many ways makes me sleep better at night”—Taha Siddiqui
Growing up in Saudi Arabia because of his father’s job, Taha Siddiqui moved back to his home country Pakistan to pursue his higher education. This experience of growing up outside Pakistan gave him a clearer perspective of problems of Pakistani society.
“When I went back to Pakistan from Saudi Arabia, I was still quite young and Saudi Arabia was a very restricted and conservative country in terms of freedom. So Pakistan seemed [like a more liberal place] that I would enjoy,” he told The Paris Globalist.
However, he later on realised that while Pakistani society might not be as conservative as that of Saudi Arabia, it’s definitely heading in that direction.
“Many who attended the Pakistani school system were brainwashed at a very early age with nationalist ideas and hyper-national sentiments,” said Taha. “I was more of a blank page to absorb things and the conditions taking place in Pakistan.”
As a journalist who holds the Prix Albert-Londres (the high French journalism award), Taha has always paid attention to freedom of expression in South Asia and published observations on Pakistani society as well as criticism on its social problems. This work and the danger inherent to it gradually steered him onto the path of exile.
In January 2018, Taha was stopped in a taxi on his way to the airport in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. He was abducted by armed men and was later fortunate enough to escape. Realising that his personal safety was jeopardised, he decided to move to Paris, founding the Dissident Club to gather the minds of dissidents around the world. He also teaches at Sciences Po, offering courses on freedom of expression and human rights issues in South Asia.
Even though Taha has escaped from Pakistan, his safety is far from secured. It seems inevitable for dissidents in exile to face the constant fear of living under surveillance.
“The Dissident Club is a public place. I have had to face surveillance from people whom we later found were linked to the Pakistani embassy in Paris.” There have also been occasions where people would constantly approach and try to establish contact with him, hoping to get to know more about his projects in order to keep an eye on him.
During his interview with The Paris Globalist in December 2020, Taha mentioned the death of a Pakistani dissident, Karima Baloch, living in Toronto, Canada. Baloch had been blackmailed for a long time, and was eventually found dead under mysterious circumstances.
Taha believes that her death portrays what is going on with Pakistani dissidents in exile.
“We saw it in the past when the Russians started dropping dead in the West, and nobody really knew what was going on. The intelligence agencies found out later that the Russians were using toxin to silence their dissidents abroad, and it really took some time for the rest of the world to realize it.” Taha believes that the Pakistani military departments are mimicking this pattern.
Since he has a refugee status, the French government is required to guarantee Taha’s safety. “I feel more comfortable and safe here,” he tells The Paris Globalist. Taha indicates that the Pakistani government can do little to threaten him in France, and that he has more to fear from non-state groups acting on its behalf.
“In 2019 and 2020, the French authorities repeatedly reached out to me and told me to be careful and pay attention to people, especially the Pakistanis I meet, telling me that my safety is an issue.”
Apart from his own safety, Taha must avoid involving his loved ones in the political turmoil. In January 2020, his father, who lives in Pakistan, was taken away for an interrogation. Eventually, his father safely made it back home – but only by breaking the relationships with Taha and ultimately disowning him.
“I had to lose my family and the closeness to my parents to keep them from being harassed and further targeted. So I have distanced myself from my own family,” a consequence he had always been prepared for.
What motivates someone to persevere in the face of such grave risks? For Taha, it’s all about speaking the truth. “It means satisfaction, and, in many ways, it makes me sleep better at night, knowing that I am doing something.”
Taha stressed that it is necessary to keep the oppressive power from ruling our lives, for otherwise it will only grow stronger.
Quoting the poem “First They Came” by Martin Niemöller, Taha said, “We need to do everything and anything possible for the cause. These are the values I hold more dearly than my own life.”