'Somewhere Like Home': Uighur Kids Find A Haven At Boarding School In Turkey
Ten-year-old Nurzat climbs out of his bunk bed, tiptoes across the room that he shares with three other boys and opens his locker.
It holds his most prized possession: a framed photograph of his father.
His dad has a thick mustache and wears a gray polo shirt and thick glasses. Nurzat, a wispy boy with huge brown eyes and a hushed voice, says he can almost hear him laughing.
"I miss you so much," he tells the photo. "When are you coming?"
Nurzat hasn't talked to his family in three years, ever since Chinese police arrested his father in western China's Xinjiang region.
As Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, Nurzat's family has faced abuse, imprisonment and discrimination in China for years. More than 1 million Uighurs have been forced into so-called reeducation camps since 2017. Human rights groups say they're targeted for their religion. At these camps, Uighurs are pressured to renounce Islam and pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party.
In the past six years, thousands have sought refuge and settled in Turkey, according to Uighur leaders there. Among them are hundreds of children — estimates vary between 350 and 700 — whose parents have disappeared in China.
Most of the children arrived in Turkey with at least one parent but have ended up on their own. The parents were arrested after returning to China to try to get the rest of the family out or to close up businesses. A handful of children, like Nurzat, were sent out of China with family acquaintances.
Without their parents, many of the children ended up living with other Uighur families or distant relatives, who struggled to support them. Some of the children, including Nurzat, were moved in late 2017 by Uighur community leaders in Turkey to a sand-colored boarding school called Oku Uygur (Read Uighur) in the sunny seaside town of Selimpasa, west of Istanbul.
Nurzat has heard grown-ups refer to his school as an orphanage.
"I'm not an orphan," he says.
A lonely journey
By 8 a.m., the dormitory is buzzing. Boys, ages 9 to 16, stuff their backpacks with books and head to a full day of classes — first at a nearby Turkish public school, then back at the boarding school, finishing at dinnertime.
More than 30 boys live in the dorm, four to a room, sharing two bunk beds, a study table and bookshelves lined with Uighur-language books, Turkish dictionaries and the Quran. A separate dormitory for girls will be finished later this year.
"The boys usually don't hear good news about their missing parents, so they cope by isolating themselves and shutting down," says Mohammad Izzatullah, 29, a Uighur religion tutor who lives at the school and serves informally as a guardian for the students. "I try to keep them busy. It's better for their mental health."
Some of the boys call Izzatullah "Big Brother" or "Uncle." They hug him and sometimes cry into his shirt. He says they understand that Chinese authorities have taken away their parents and that's why their parents can't talk to them. But they still want to know: Will we ever see them again?
"I don't know how to answer that," he says. "So I tell them my own family is missing and that I haven't seen them in five years."
Izzatullah spends extra time with Nurzat, who hasn't seen his parents since he left China in 2014, when he was 5. To save their son from a massive crackdown on Uighurs in Xinjiang, his parents sent him to Egypt with family friends. His mom and dad looked sad as they said goodbye, Nurzat remembers, and told him the Han Chinese did not like Uighurs. They promised they would join him soon and bring his younger siblings.
"I remember my mother telling me to study hard," he says. "I didn't understand where I was going."
Nurzat stayed with relatives who ran a Uighur restaurant in downtown Cairo. At first, he says, he was so lonely that his stomach hurt every day. He called his parents on WeChat, the Chinese social media app, telling them he wanted to come home. After a few months, though, he learned Arabic well enough to make friends at school. The stomachaches went away. He started to relax.
"A couple of other Uighur kids even came to my school, and we became friends," he says.
Everything changed one chilly night, when he was up late watching Tom and Jerry cartoons in his pajamas.
"My relatives ran into the house and said we had to pack our clothes right away," Nurzat says. "They said the police had come to my uncle's restaurant and arrested Uighurs working and eating there. My uncle and two others escaped through the back door."
By then, Nurzat was 7. For a few weeks, he and the adults hid out with an Egyptian friend. A few weeks later, he flew to Turkey with an adult relative he calls "Big Sister."
"My uncle told me that all Uighurs go to Turkey and that we will be safe there," he says.
They arrived in Istanbul in early 2017, settling in the blue-collar Istanbul neighborhood of Zeytinburnu. Rows of smog-colored concrete apartment blocks surround bright produce markets bursting with oranges and pomegranates. Junk collectors push wheelbarrows on the narrow roads, shouting for spare parts, past grandfathers on plastic stools sipping coffee and gossiping.
The neighborhood has long been a magnet for ethnic minorities and immigrants. Armenians, Greeks and Bulgarians lived here in the 1950s. Today, it's Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Uighurs.
Nurzat remembers how shocked he was to see so many Uighurs. It was almost as if he were back in his hometown of Hotan, passing bakeries selling his favorite crispy flatbread and restaurants serving the meaty pilafs and lamb stews he loves so much. He called his parents to tell them that they might like it here.
One night after dinner, he overheard the grownups whispering about his father. The Chinese police had arrested him.
"I went to my room and started crying," he says. "I cried until I fell asleep."
He called his mother on WeChat. She told him the family was trying to get his father out of jail. Then she stopped responding to his messages. There was only silence. She disappeared, along with his three siblings.
Nurzat's stomachaches returned. His loneliness turned into confusion.
"I wrote a letter to my mom," Nurzat says. "But I didn't know where to send it, so I threw it away."
"Somewhere like home"
The Oku Uygur boarding school grew out of the Uighur-language classes that its founder, Habibulla Kuseni, 45, previously ran from his apartment in Selimpasa. Kuseni, a Uighur who used to run a tutoring center in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi, began to feel unsafe in China not long after clashes in 2009 between Uighurs and Han Chinese left scores dead and hundreds injured. Chinese authorities blamed the riots on Uighurs and began arresting them.
"I felt like the Chinese authorities had evil plans for us, like they want to destroy our entire community," he says. "I decided to move to a place where I could work for the interest of my people."
Kuseni and his family arrived in Turkey in 2012. They settled in Selimpasa and became Turkish citizens. As more Uighur families arrived in Turkey, he started teaching Uighur language — which resembles Turkish — and history to children. Fifteen kids turned into 30, then 60, then more. Uighur friends started a fundraising campaign to build a standalone school to prepare Uighur students for university. Tuition was supposed to be about $150 per month.
"We agreed to make exceptions for students who couldn't afford the tuition," he says, "because the whole point of the school was to make sure Uighur children never forget their language and culture."
In 2017, he noticed an increasing number of Uighur children like Nurzat, stranded in Turkey without parents.
"I kept meeting students who said they didn't have enough to eat," he says. "They slept on the floor instead of a bed."
Kuseni decided to get rid of the tuition requirement and use the new school to house the most disadvantaged Uighur children. The school opened in late 2017, with permission from the Turkish state and financed by donations from the Uighur diaspora in the Middle East and Europe.
Kuseni says he and his administrators selected the 30-plus boarding students by interviewing their guardians and checking out their family histories to find out where the children's parents are. He recruited 15 teachers by advertising through local Uighur-language media and word-of-mouth, hiring those with college degrees and classroom experience. The teachers, who are all Uighur, are paid between $334 and $500 per month.
The school is supposed to help students keep their Uighur culture and traditions alive. Kuseni also doesn't shy away from telling them that China is to blame for separating them from their families and displacing them.
"We want them to know they belong to a family that's much bigger than the one they have lost," he says.
Classes are open to all Uighur children. About 170 attend courses in Uighur language and history, Quranic studies, as well as art, science, computers and English.
"We want them to know there is an entire community behind them," says Kalbigul, a tall, intense English teacher in her early 30s who declined to give her last name because she fears for her family in China.
Her intermediate English class is packed with teenagers.
"This house is uptown," they read aloud from an English workbook, before translating into Uighur. "It is in a green and quiet neighborhood."
She scans the room. Talking about homes and families sometimes makes the students choke up. After class, she tries to comfort them.
"I just say that if you miss your mom, you can come to my home and I can cook for you any dish you want," she says.
She can't bring herself to talk to children directly about family separation. She doesn't want the students to see her cry. Her own parents are missing in China.
"We don't have any contact with them," she says. "It's been two, three years, even we cannot call. We don't know if they are fine or what happened to them."
Down the hall, a room of 9- and 10-year-olds recite a Uighur alphabet song. Their teacher, a rosy-cheeked grandmother named Arzigul, sings with them. She also declines to give her last name because she has family in China.
"Speaking our language together makes the children feel like they are somewhere like home," she says. "It also makes them miss everything they have lost. ... Some of the children ask me, 'Do we have to say goodbye to our parents and our homeland forever?' "
She tries to cheer them up with jokes and funny faces. She gives them money and candy for the Eid holiday, just like their grandparents used to do back home.
"They know it's not the same," she says. Her eyes fill with tears.
"They really only have this school and God"
When the school celebrated Eid last year, Arzigul saw three little boys tucked into a corner, refusing food.
"They didn't want to eat anything, only a couple of bites of banana," she says. "They kept saying their family back home was cooking for them. I brought them some fruit and gave them some pocket money. But I cried because it seems like they really only have this school and God."
One of those boys was Nurzat. The other two were his closest friends, Abdulla and Muhammet, who are brothers.
After classes, the three boys play pickup soccer and basketball in the schoolyard. A younger girl wearing a headscarf, tutu and shiny white shoes runs around them. She's one of the lucky ones who lives in Turkey with her family, and she says her parents have told her to become friends with kids who don't, so they won't feel lonely.
When her mother and father arrive to take her home, the boys watch silently as the family walks away holding hands.
Abdulla, 11, is serious and stick-thin, with a thick black pompadour. Muhammet, 10, is freckled and chubby-cheeked. They grew up in Korla, the second-largest city in Xinjiang, and came to Turkey with their father four years ago. Their father left them in the Istanbul home of a woman from Korla and flew back to China to get the rest of the family.
"My brother and I spoke to him a lot on WeChat," Abdulla says. "But then he stopped answering our calls."
Their mother told them that their father had not forgotten them. The Chinese police had taken him away.
"Then Mom said she couldn't talk to us anymore either, because the police had come for her too," Abdulla says.
Being in a foreign country without a mom and dad, he says, feels like being crushed. Sometimes Abdulla feels as though he can't breathe. When he asks his teachers if they can help him find his parents, they always change the subject.
"They seem really busy," Abdulla says. "I don't want to bother them."
So he talks to his brother and Nurzat. The three boys sit together in the cafeteria, eating bowls of spicy spaghetti. Then, as the sun goes down, they hang out in Nurzat's room.
In a blend of Uighur and Turkish, they swap stories about their lost childhoods — secretly eating YumYum instant noodles with friends whose names they can no longer remember, playing with siblings now missing, running away from sheep on their grandparents' farms.
"I remember my grandfather going to slaughter the sheep so we could eat them," says Muhammet, cringing.
"I didn't like all that blood," says Nurzat, making the same pinched face.
But he adds: "That's when we were all together, the whole family."
Muhammet looks sad. He says he wants to grow up fast so he can learn to hack computers and find out where the Chinese authorities are keeping his parents.
Nurzat has even more formidable plans.
"When I get big, I'm going to become so strong that I'm going to beat up all the Chinese police and rescue my parents," he says, his voice rising. "And then, I'm going to make myself little again so I can grow up with them."
He hugs the framed photo of his father. Nurzat is in that photo, too — 4 years old, in oversized sunglasses and a bright-yellow shirt, smiling as he leans into his dad's soft belly.
Nurzat usually keeps his most prized possession in his locker. But tonight, he feels another stomachache coming on. He tucks the photo under his pillow.