Muslim Uygur children taught the ‘forbidden language’, far from their restive homeland in China’s Xinjiang
- Several Uygur language centres have opened in Istanbul, home to a community of Muslim Uygurs who have fled China
- Parents say they want to preserve their children’s Uygur identity as they grow up in a foreign country
Hunched over the pages, his finger following the words one by one, Shkur Abliz deciphers the Koran. The teacher makes him chant a few verses in Arabic, then explains to the class of children the meaning in Uygur, along with any new words they might not understand.
Shkur, wearing a black baseball cap embroidered with traditional Uygur patterns, stumbles on the word bulak which means “fountain” in Uygur.
The eight-year-old, who fled Xinjiang when he was three with his parents and older brother, studies Uygur language and the Koran at Tangnuri language centre in Istanbul.
“We also learn Uygur customs and traditions: respecting the elders, the Islamic holidays and how to salute,” said Shkur, who goes to a Turkish school in the afternoon.
Shkur’s mother Asya Abliz is determined to preserve as much as she can of her son’s Uygur identity as he grows up in a foreign country after fleeing China.
“I want to raise my two sons as Uygurs,” Asya said.
“I want to teach my children Uygur because in East Turkestan (Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region), the language is forbidden. Our only hope is in the diaspora.”
The family comes from Karamay, an oil-rich city in Xinjiang, the heartland of China’s often restive Uygur Muslim minority.
They left five years ago after bribing local police to get passports and now lives in Zeytinburnu, a conservative working-class neighbourhood on the European side of Istanbul where many Uygurs have started new lives.
The emigration of Uygurs to Turkey goes back decades and distinct Uygur neighbourhoods can be found in Istanbul and the central city of Kaiseri. It has helped Uygur immigrants, who speak a Turkic language with an Arabic-derived writing system, integrate while preserving some of their traditions and language.
However, over the past few years, the prohibition of their language education, as well as intensified surveillance and mass detention by the Chinese government of Muslim Uygurs in Xinjiang, have seriously affected the Uygur language and culture in the province and abroad.
A UN human rights panel estimated in August that 1 million ethnic Uygurs and other Muslims in China were being held in what resembled a “massive internment camp that is shrouded in secrecy”, and subjected to enforced political indoctrination.
China insists that Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Muslim extremists who plot attacks and stir up tensions with the ethnic Han majority.
A report published on Thursday by a Catholic concern group said religious freedom was under threat in one fifth of the world. Aid to the Church in Need argues that the situation has worsened in particular in India and China, where it identifies the cause as increasingly “aggressive ultranationalism”.
“Until recently I never would have thought that the Uygur language was existentially threatened because there are millions and millions of Uygur speakers. The diaspora is a tiny percentage of the Uygur population,” said James McMurray, research associate and doctor in anthropology at the University of Sussex.
“It is very difficult to predict how things are going to go in China now, because there has not been a situation like this before. It is imaginable now that China could seriously erode the Uygur language. Uygur communities are being interrupted in such a way that the ordinary process of pedagogy and cultural transmission can’t continue as they used to.”
Several Uygur language centres in Istanbul have opened in the past two years to try to keep traditions going.
At Uygur Ilim Market Vakfi school, classes start at 6.30am for the 220 students. Children whose parents are in Xinjiang can board at the school in Istanbul’s Selimpasa suburb.
Director Abdulgani Kutubi said he had to rush the opening of the school last year to house 40 orphans. It is still being built and does not even have a sign yet.
“We accept children from the age of six and we educate them until they graduate. In this way, we hope they don’t forget their mother language,” Kutubi said
Some schools – like Tangnuri – even publish their own Uygur textbooks. The school, which is in Zeytinburnu, opened in September 2017. It held Saturday and Sunday classes for about 30 students but quickly expanded at request of the parents.
“The students who were born here don’t really know anything about our culture and history unfortunately,” teacher Abdureshit Niyaz said.
“Some students who came here four or five years ago, unfortunately also don’t know much.”
Shkur goes to Tangnuri five times a week, including Saturday mornings, then hurries home and turn on his PlayStation.
According to his mother, Shkur has forgotten the little Chinese he could speak, unlike his older brother, who received a Chinese-only education and was a teenager when the family arrived in Istanbul.
“My eldest son thinks in Chinese and watches Chinese movies” Asya said.
“I don’t want to forbid any language. My son is 19 now; maybe it is too late for him.”
Abduweli Ayup, a linguist, poet and staunch defender of the Uygur language, is pessimistic.
He used to run a network of Uygur language schools in Xinjiang until he was arrested and imprisoned for 15 months between 2013 and 2014.
He fled to Turkey in 2015 with his wife and two daughters.
To keep them practising, Ayup holds “Uygur weekends” where the five and 11-year-old girls must only speak or recite poetry in the language.
But Ayup acknowledged he may be fighting a losing battle.
“In foreign countries, you cannot keep your language alive, it is impossible,” he said.
“It is not their fault if my daughters speak Turkish to me. I brought them here.”
He tells his children that if they forget the language, “how can you communicate with your grandmother, uncles and aunts back in Xinjiang?”
The language centres have been taking in a rising number of orphans, as their parents returned to Xinjiang and were unable to come back. According to reports, Chinese authorities have been arresting Uygurs returning home from abroad.
Nearly half of the students at Hira Language Centre, near Istanbul’s airport, don’t have their parents with them.
“They are usually the quietest,” according to director Lokman Hira’i.
Despite the Uyghur-only environment the school provides, “the trend is toward assimilation” into Turkey, said Hira’i.
But Asya maintains there is a positive side to emigrating: “Before we left, my husband and I realised that had we stayed, our children would be like Chinese people … There would be no more Uygur element in them any more.”
“We are in Turkey, but we can live as Uygurs,” said Shkur. “One day I want to go back to my motherland. With all my friends in Turkey, maybe we can go back and all live together with the Chinese people.”