By Carol Kerbaugh

Activist and human rights advocate Sayid Abdull MC/MPA 2024 is focused on preserving Uyghur culture through policymaking and storytelling.

Sayid Abdull MC/MPA 2024 has stories to tell—his own and countless others. 

A Uyghur activist and human rights advocate, Abdull will graduate from the Mid-Career Master in Public Administration Program from Harvard Kennedy School this month. He’s Gleitsman Leadership Fellow as well as a Cheng Fellow at the Center for Public Leadership where he has been developing My Uyghur Origin, a project that shares testimonies of Uyghur refugees to raise awareness of the Uyghur genocide. 

Before HKS, Abdull was a product marketing manager at Google and a youth consultant for the United Nations World Humanitarian Summit and UN Secretary General’s Agenda for Humanity.  

Ahead of graduation, Abdull reflected on his story, where he came from, and where he’s going.

Sayid Abdull smiling in front of glass windows

“Authoritarian governments around the world continue to commit genocides and erase cultures. We cannot allow Uyghur culture to be next. That’s why I created My Uyghur Origin.”

Sayid Abdull MC/MPA 2024
  • Graduates from HKS and continues to grow My Uyghur Origin

     

    “I want to focus on cultural preservation, not just stories of genocide. I want people to know that Uyghurs have rich culture, language, traditions, and cuisine, and I want to make sure that our culture is not forgotten because it is currently under attack. And I want to empower other Uyghurs to not be ashamed of their backgrounds.”

    Abdull hopes to register My Uyghur Origin as an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and wants to partner with museums to curate exhibitions that introduce Uyghur culture to the United States. He will also continue working to produce his short film, Echoes of Silence, which tells the story of two Uyghur men holding onto their faith while imprisoned in a labor camp. 

    Abdull was recently named a Humanity in Action Democracy Fellow. The fellowship brings together leaders devoted to projects supporting democratic values. Through the fellowship, Abdull will continue raising awareness of the Uyghur genocide.
     

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    “Authoritarian governments around the world continue to commit genocides and erase cultures. We cannot allow Uyghur culture to be next. That’s why I created My Uyghur Origin.”

    Abdull focused on developing My Uyghur Origin as a Cheng Fellow in the New World Social Innovation Fellows Program, an accelerator program that supports students working on social innovation projects. His work centered on three areas: collecting testimonies of Uyghur people; using media to share those testimonies; and advocating for policies that benefit the Uyghur people. To date, Abdull has collected the testimonies of more than 90 Uyghurs, written a short film script, raised more than $100,000, and advocated for the Uyghur Policy Act, which passed the House in February 2024 in a 414–6 vote.

    His family members’ testimonies were among his favorite to collect. 

    “One of the testimonies that was beautiful to capture was my dad’s story,” Abdull says. “He told me the importance of staying true to my faith, my culture, and to never forget my roots. It’s mind blowing to think he never went to school and never learned how to read, yet here I am graduating from Harvard Kennedy School.” 
     

  • As part of the MC/MPA Summer Program’s Introduction to Public Narrative course, Adbull was selected to present his story to his classmates. Abdull appreciated the opportunity to share Uyghur culture with his MC/MPA cohort—something he’s appreciated about his Harvard experience more generally.

    “Uyghurs wear a specific hat called a doppa,” he says. “I wear mine around Harvard and am often asked about it. I love the opportunity to tell people about it—not just because it’s my cultural artifact but because Uyghurs in China cannot wear it.”

    Sayid Adbull stands in front of glass windows holding a blue doppa

     

     

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    “I believe there are two things that can really change the world for the better: policymaking and storytelling.”

    Abdull learned the art of storytelling in his role at Google, but he wanted to come to HKS to better understand policymaking. As a refugee, he realized he benefitted from policies enacted by policymakers, and he sought to learn how to protect and enhance those policies for future waves of refugees. 

    He explored the intersection of policymaking and storytelling by taking MLD-326: Principles and Politics When Running for Office with Former Massachusetts Governor Professor Deval Patrick and DPI-891M: Engaging the Media with Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy Margaret Talev. He also found API-205: Politics and Policies: What is the Impact of Data and AI with Professor Deborah Hughes Hallet to be instrumental in understanding the intersection of AI and policy.
     

  • While working as a product marketing manager at Google, Abdul was named to Forbes’ annual 30 Under 30 list in the Marketing & Advertising category.

  • Becomes increasingly interested in Uyghur activism


    “As the world found out about the Chinese government’s labor and education camps for Uyghurs—where women are forcibly sterilized, where Uyghur children are removed from their homes and taken to state-run schools to be stripped of their culture, where our religion is prohibited—I felt called to speak about these issues.”

    News began to surface about the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs. In his 2018 statement, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein wrote: “My Office continues to receive urgent appeals regarding arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment and discrimination, emanating from human rights defenders, lawyers, legislators, booksellers, and members of communities such as Tibetans and Uyghurs.”

    As a Uyghur, Abdull felt compelled to channel his interest in activism toward learning more about Uyghur issues. He sought to raise awareness of what was happening to Uyghurs in China, including to his own family members still in the region.

  • Graduates from the University of Pennsylvania

    Abdull studied political science at the University of Pennsylvania. During his undergraduate years, he participated in activism on and off campus. 

  • Arrives in the United States as a refugee

    Sayid Abdull’s parents faced persecution as Uyghurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group from East Turkistan, a vast region of deserts and mountains now known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and occupied by the Chinese government. They fled to neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where Abdull was born and spent his childhood. He was drawn to activism from an early age, creating Kids Helping Kids, an organization that provided programming for children with disabilities, and volunteering with youth civic leadership organizations.

    Abdull came to the United States as a refugee when he was 15 years old with just $30 in his pocket, settling with a host family in Tucson, Arizona where he quickly got involved with human rights and refugee causes.

Portraits by Lydia Rosenberg

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