URUMQI - In less than two years, Rena Abdurrahman has gone from being a frightened young mother in a dangerous slum in Urumqi, capital of the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, to being the owner of a successful small business and something of a community leader.
Those personal changes mirror the transformation of that former slum in the Heijiashan area of Tianshan district in Urumqi into a safe, pleasant community. The transformation was sparked by the riot in the city in July 2009 that left 197 people dead.
Rena's small handicrafts shop has become an informal meeting place, a venue where local women can learn crafts and a busy production center.
"Neighbors drop into my shop, have a chat and help me make some handicrafts," said Rena, who is teaching needlework to three girls who live nearby.
"I feel comfortable living in this area now. But this comfortable life was absolutely impossible two years ago," Rena told China Daily.
Two years ago, Heijiashan was one of the city's most notorious shantytowns. It was inhabited by young jobless or low-income migrants from the poorer areas of Xinjiang; and Rena was one of them.
The 34-year-old Uygur woman moved to the slum with her daughter from a small town in Kashgar, in southwest Xinjiang, in October 2008. She later bought a small, dilapidated, earthen bungalow.
Rena said there was no drinking water in the houses and residents also had problems with sewage. But public security was an even bigger problem.
"Quarrels, bullying and crimes were very common," she said.
Rena never allowed her daughter to go out alone in those days.
Changes in the slum began after order was restored in the wake of the 2009 riot, which erupted in Urumqi on July 5 that year.
Rena was at her work place far from the riots that day and luckily escaped the chaos that engulfed the slum. Five days later, she ventured back home and saw horrifying scenes.
"My work place was about 30 kilometers from the slum," she said. "It was the hardest hit area in the riot and no taxis would take me home. I had to get out and walk back."
On the way home, Rena saw burnt cars, looted shops, and stern-faced passers-by. "Police cars were cruising around near my house, tracking the rioters," she said.
Shortly after the riots, local authorities sped up their improvement project in the slum.
Since 2009, the city government has spent 2.7 billion yuan ($417 million) on the project and has vowed to complete it within five years.
"By now, 887 houses from a total of 1,855 have been cleaned up," said Zhang Long, from the Heijiashan slum transformation office. "They now live in new residential buildings that have good infrastructure and the area has schools, kindergartens and clinics."
Rena and her daughter now live in a bright two-bedroom apartment.
"The environment has changed tremendously," Rena said, pointing to two excavators near her shop, which were demolishing some earthen houses.
Rows of beautiful apartments replaced the old squatter houses. A community management office was opened at the end of 2009, providing various services to the residents.
"Now I don't need to worry about security here. It's safe," Rena said. "Members of public security teams patrol the community 24 hours a day. My daughter can play outside whenever she wants."
With only 2,000 yuan in her savings in 2010, Rena was considering setting up a handicrafts shop in the community.
"I discussed my idea with workers at the community management office, and to my surprise, they happily offered to help me," Rena said. "With their help, I got a 30-sq-m apartment in our community for free and a loan of 50,000 yuan for the business."
Rena's shop now makes about 200 handicraft products a month, with a net income of 30,000 yuan. Her products have sold to Kazakhstan, Pakistan and other Asian countries.
"Fourteen women from poor families in the community have joined my business this year and they earn at least 1,200 yuan a month.
"My life has improved a lot, thanks to the community's help."
Rena plans to buy a bigger apartment this year, so her 11-year-old daughter has more room to pursue her dream of becoming a dancer.
"I will find a new apartment in this community and will continue to live here. It's a nice place," Rena said.
Rukhyar contributed to this story.