They Constructed a Homeland Far From China’s Grip. Now They’re Afraid

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ISTANBUL – Six years ago, he fled China’s crackdown on Muslim Uyghurs and sought refuge in Turkey to join a community of exiles. With his brother, he started a business in which he translated and published self-help books into their language. His wife got a job as a teacher at a Uyghur school where his children started teaching.

Now Ablet Abdugani fears that the life he built up will disappear.

The Turkish government told him that he had to leave the country. That could mean being sent back to China and locked directly in an extensive network of internment camps that hold about a million Muslims.

"I'm afraid if the door opens," said Abdugani in his apartment on the outskirts of Istanbul. "I am very sad about my six years here."

The Uighurs flocked to China when the government stepped up an assimilation campaign in the western region of Xinjiang. In the past three years, at least 11,000 people have landed in Turkey, which has long been a popular haven.

Now they fear to become farmers in a geopolitical game.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who described Beijing's treatment of the Uyghurs as genocide a decade ago, has tried to reduce his country's dependence on the West by turning to countries like China. In recent years, he has secured loans and investments in the billions from the Asian giant to support the stalled Turkish economy.

Earlier this year, Turkey deported at least four Uighurs to Tajikistan. From there they were sent back to China, which alarmed the Uyghur community and sparked protests on social media. The Turkish authorities later said they would not send Uighurs back to China. But Mr. Abdugani, who has not been deported, and many others like him are still concerned.

"We are in the middle of Sino-Turkish relations and do not even know how much we are worth." Mr. Abdugani said.

For those who fled China, Turkey has given them a place to redefine their homeland.

Their people share a common heritage and similar languages. The Turkish government recognizes the Turkish people as their own and makes it a rare Muslim-majority nation that has spoken out in favor of the Uyghurs despite China's objections.

They can practice Islam without fear and celebrate the culture of their 12 million people. They teach religious and Uyghur courses and hold an annual rally for their rights, activities that would be risky or even prohibited in China.

But many Uighurs in Turkey are in a state of instability. They are denied work and business permits, in some cases permanent residence and citizenship. As soon as their Chinese passports expire, they are practically stateless.

The Uighurs speak a Turkish language and write in Arabic script. Their mosques are adorned with turquoise tiled domes, their houses are decorated with Afghan-style carpets, and their kitchens serve lamb pilaf spiced with naan and naan. Some refer to their homeland – a vastness of deserts, mountains and old oasis towns – not under the official Chinese name, but as East Turkestan, the name of two short-lived Uyghur republics.

In their new home in Turkey, the Uighurs found something rare: an opportunity to restore their way of life and the reservoir of collective memory that the ruling Chinese Communist Party was trying to undermine.

In 2014 the authorities blamed extremists for this. Arrests and criminal convictions increased.

The authorities confiscated Uyghur books, restricted use of language in schools, and imprisoned scientists, artists and intellectuals in indoctrination camps, among others.

Omer Shirtulla was studying in the Middle East in 2017 when his family in China warned him not to go home. The authorities said he had arrested his brothers and confiscated their business.

He went to Turkey and took over a bookstore in Istanbul in January to join a burgeoning trade in Uyghur print books.

“The entire Uyghur nation is in danger. Our people are tortured, ”said the 30-year-old lawyer.

He and his business partner Nur Ahmet Mahmut (32) publish everything they can find, from the history and literature of the Uyghurs to children's stories and cookbooks. They sell symbols of their hoped-for Republic of East Turkestan – like the sky-blue flag with a white crescent moon and star – that are banned in China.

Mr. Shirtulla stores books that were banned in Xinjiang. Among the most popular are the novel "Awakened Land" by Abdurehim Otkur, a well-known Uyghur author, and "East Turkestan History" by Muhamet Emin Bugra, an exiled Turkish Muslim leader.

"I only read them when I came to Turkey and found that China oppressed and occupied us a long time ago."

Its business is in half a dozen bookstores on the outskirts of Sefakoy and Zeytinburnu in Istanbul, where many of the estimated 50,000 Uighurs live in Turkey.

Another publisher, Abduljalil Turan (61), started working in the 1990s with a focus on Islamic books and Uyghur history and literature.

He asked friends to bring books to Turkey and then began publishing works by the exiled Uighurs, including his own writings. He constantly expanded his holdings to 1,000 titles and exported them to Uyghur communities around the world.

"It's part of the thing," he said, "keeping awareness of our condition alive."

For many Uyghurs who grew up under communism, Turkey offers the opportunity to raise a generation that is not bound by party orthodoxy, children who can freely engage in religion and their ethnic roots.

In China, Niaz Abdulla Bostani was detained for three years for teaching the Qur'an to Uyghur children. At the age of 87, he gives religious classes to Uyghur children on weekends in a local hall in Istanbul.

"Young people come to me and ask questions," he said. “Education is the answer. It won't find a solution in a few days, but it will affect you all your life. “

Abdurashid Niaz, 55, was detained in China for one year in 2005 for translating a book by the Egyptian Islamist Muhammad Qutb from Mandarin to Uyghur. He now runs a Uyghur school in Istanbul with his wife and says that the internment camp in Xinjiang worried the Uyghurs about the survival of their people.

"Everyone is debating whether our culture will disappear in 50 years." Mr. Abdurashid said:

Four children recently studied geography with his wife Anifa Abdurashid and jumped up to answer questions about their home.

"I know the population is 32 million," said Abdulla, the youngest in the class. The real population of the Xinjiang region, which makes up half of the Uighurs, is closer to 24 million, but Ms. Abdurashid has let them go.

The Uighurs have maintained their identity for five millennia, said Ferhat Kurban Tanridagli, a musician and scholar of the Turkish languages.

He runs an art school with his wife, a singer, and teaches Uighur children in music and dance. He plays the dutar, a long-necked, two-string lute that has been played in Central Asia for 4,000 years.

"Made in Kashgar, 1993," he said proudly, turning the instrument of the shiny peanut Inlaid wood in his hands, which refers to the legendary trading town of the Silk Road, which is now under strict police surveillance.

He warned that the Uyghurs alone could not withstand the onslaught of China.

“If they destroy us, they won't stop. You will do it to others, ”he said. “The whole world has to tell China to stop. We have no other choice. "

This summer the threat of deportation cast a new shadow of uncertainty over the Uighurs.

Mr. Abdugani, the businessman the government asked to leave in July, said 40 others had received similar orders.

The Uighurs were deeply disturbed when the authorities took action against illegal immigrants to Uyghur and their two children to Tajikistan, who sent them back to China. A fourth Uighur, also a woman, was also deported. The children have been handed over to their grandmother, but relatives have no news of the two women and fear that they have been detained.

An estimated 2,500 Uighurs have no legal residence.

Suleyman Soylu said in August that the government was trying to manage migration with "grace and conscience" and did not want to expel the Uighurs. People without a residence permit like Abdugani could seek humanitarian protection, he said. This would give them refugee status and access to health services, but would not allow them to work.

Mr. Abdugani applied for humanitarian protection, but waited for a response a few months later and threatened to be arrested for his illegal status. The family survived on his wife's salary and was unable to pay for the school books or the bus fare, so his children went to class most days.

Although Turkey allowed them to stay, many Uighurs said that immigration rules and government bureaucracy made survival difficult. Mr. Abdugani said he wanted a long-term residence that would allow him to work and feed his family, and applied for citizenship after seven years.

Entrepreneurs complain that they can no longer expand their business, political activists say. The authorities restrict their demonstrations and students are only offered free university education if they study religion.

And the fear of China's reach is still great.

Abdulla Turkestanli, 49, a book publisher, said he was detained without charge by the Turkish authorities for a year in 2017. Beijing complained about him when he opened a second bookstore in Sefakoy. The Turkish authorities have never explained why he was detained.

"Many writers are in prison or dead," he said. "They are accused of terrorism in China, and so they say we help them."

"I'm fine, thank God," he said, "but there is still a danger."

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