Children of Detained Uyghurs Find Refuge in Istanbul School

Mujahid is a 12-year-old Uyghur refugee in Turkey.

“I remember at home, we used to go to the pool with my father and have competitions,” said 12-year-old Mujahid who is only using his first name for safety reasons. “We would have fun with my dad. I was 4 years old then, very little. Sometimes I remember by looking at my mom and dad’s picture.”

Mujahid added, “The last thing (my parents) said to me was, ‘Even if you forget us, we will not forget you.’”

Mujahid is one of dozens of Uyghur children who live in this Istanbul school, which teaches Uyghur language, math, religion and other subjects in the hours before and after public schools meet. Most of the students live with parents or relatives, but many, like Mujahid, live in this school. Their parents are all believed to be detained by the Chinese government.

Amnesty International says a million or more mostly-Uyghur Muslims from Xinjiang, the autonomous region of China where most Uyghurs live, have been detained in centers like this since 2017.

It is part of a systematic campaign Amnesty calls “crimes against humanity” that includes “at least … imprisonment, torture, and persecution.”

China has denied abuses against Uyghurs for decades and says the modern-day centers educate and teach vocational skills to reduce poverty. The government also says some actions against Uyghurs are meant to combat Islamic extremism and that foreign accusations of human rights abuses are attempts to destabilize China for political gain.

As many as 50,000 Uyghurs work and live in Turkey, and the country is generally viewed as a haven for Uyghur refugees. But families and their lawyers say economic and security ties between Turkey and China have deepened in recent years, and so have threats to the Uyghur community.

Enver Turdi reported news in Xinjiang and continues to speak out against human rights abuses in China, even after a year of detention in Turkey.

“Turkey holds and investigates people for months or a year and finds nothing,” Turdi said. “Once they have the correct information, they let people go. For me, it’s been three years, and they are still investigating. China cannot provide evidence.”

Lawyers say families increasingly fear detainees will be deported to China where they could face imprisonment or worse.

“If they stop abusing people and they leave us alone, I may go back some day,” said Abdullah, 11, a Uyghur refugee at the school who is also using only his first name for safety reasons.

The boys say while many children here have parents with them in Istanbul, everyone they know in the school has missing family members.

“The last thing (my parents) said to me was, ‘Even if you forget us, we will not forget you.’”

Mujahid, 12, a Uyghur refugee in Turkey


WRITER: Heather MurdockVIDEOGRAPHER: Umut Colak Post-production coordinator: Marcus Harton

About this series

From 2010-2020, U.N. Refugee Agency reported a consistent increase in the number of asylum-seekers from China totaling more than 630,000 people. Separately, the number of asylum-seekers from Hong Kong jumped dramatically, from 22 in 2018 to a record 487 people in 2020, despite the coronavirus pandemic. Asylum-seekers are just one part of the China exodus story, as people from China and Hong Kong emigrate in other ways, as well. This project examines why people left and where they have resettled.