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China’s displaced Uyghur youth find solace in Turkey

Youth centers offer education, help battle drug addiction and promote Uyghur culture and traditions

By UCA News reporter

August 7, 2023

Zuleyha, a volunteer art tutor, shows off Uyghur art produced at the Bostan Youth Center in Istanbul. (Photo by Ruth Ingram/The China Project)

Two youth centers in Turkey have become lifesavers for thousands of young people from the ethnic minority Uyghur community who fled persecution in China’s Xinjiang region.

The community facilities have helped young Uyghurs get an education and successfully battle drug addiction, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on Aug. 6.

Abdusami Hoten, 30, co-founded the East Turkistan Youth Center in Istanbul in 2021 to help Uyghur immigrant youths and locals achieve a better life.

“The center’s primary objective is to educate and assist Uyghur youth who are on the wrong path, such as addiction to gambling, drugs, and other substances, and guide them toward reintegrating into society,” Hoten said.

Turkey is home to around 50,000 Uyghurs making it the largest diaspora of the largely Muslim ethnic group outside China’s Xinjiang.

Despite the Turkish authorities providing a safe place to live, some Uyghur youths upon reaching Turkey have encountered unemployment, economic hardship, and drug addiction.

A 25-year-old unnamed youth who had moved to Turkey from Xinjiang became isolated and depressed and lost hope in his future after his parents’ plans to move from Xinjiang to Turkey fell through. He finally sought refuge in illegal drugs.

Eventually, a friend suggested that he seek help at the center shortly after it opened.

“When I heard about this center and the support, they were providing to Uyghur youth for free, I couldn’t believe my ears,” the young man said.

“Before joining the center, I was involved in negative activities and used drugs like heroin,” he further added.

Hoten and his team have organized classes on psychology and Uyghur history, and other events that have offered new perspectives for him and others.

“We received valuable advice from elders and every week, we had food gatherings, strengthening our bonds like brothers,” the young man said.

“Gradually, our interest in living increased, and we are incredibly grateful for the positive changes,” he further added.

Similarly, the Palwan Uyghur Youth Center, also known as the Bostan Youth Center, founded by Xinjiang-born Samarjan Saidi, 34, in the Safakoy district helps youth play sports and learn new skills.

The center consists of a boxing club and a separate youth facility that offers courses in painting, arts, and crafts, English, and the natural sciences. Organizers also host talks and field trips.

With US$25,000 in funding from the US-based Uyghur NextGen Project, they were able to move the boxing club to another facility and set up a youth center.

Saidi pointed out that the center aims to help young people prepare for college by providing guidance that aligns with their interests and talents.

Saidi opened the youth center after the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang began confiscating passports from Uyghur youth and later began rounding them up for imprisonment and “re-education” in camps.

The promise from the authorities that the passports would be returned whenever they needed them for traveling aboard turned out to be hollow.

The situation worsened in 2017 when authorities began arbitrarily arresting both prominent and ordinary Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, sending them to “re-education” camps.

Allegedly, those arrested were charged for participating in “illegal” religious practices or activities deemed “extremist” or a threat to national security.

Rights groups say up to two million Uyghurs as well as Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities are detained in a network of so-called “re-education camps.”

China’s Communist regime is accused of unleashing a genocidal crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang since 2014 in the name of containing an active insurgency.

An estimated one million Muslims, mostly Uyghurs, are detained in secretive detention camps in Xinjiang where they face brutal oppression including forced abortion, forced sterilization, forced birth control, rape, forced labor, torture, internment, brainwashing and killings, rights groups say.

It was during this time that Saidi and his friends in Europe decided to open the boxing club and pooled their finances.

Saidi says that the center has progressed beyond their expectations and attracted thousands of youths who want to obtain a better living.

“As we made progress, we invited English teachers, which attracted more people to join,” Saidi said.

“Even girls requested having a training environment, and one of the girls who was already training in a Turkish club took responsibility for training them,” Saidi added.

The centers have expanded beyond providing education and now promote Uyghur culture and traditions.

When two Uyghur youths wanted to learn how to play traditional Uyghur instruments like the dutar, a long-necked two-stringed lute, and promote Uyghur culture through music, organizers found an Uyghur musician to provide instruction.

They did the same for a young woman who wanted to learn how to draw.

The center hosts art displays to showcase the works of its members, arranges summer picnics, and talks by Uyghur professionals.

Idris Ayas, a staff who has lived in Turkey for 11 years and has worked with young Uyghurs since 2019 says that the center has evolved into an alternate home for the Xinjiang youth who have left everything behind for a better life.

“In essence, the Palawan Youth Center has not only become a place of learning and growth but also evolved into a welcoming home and family for our Uyghur students,” Ayas said.

Saidi pointed out that the center aims to provide a warm and friendly environment for the displaced youth despite the challenges it faces.

“While we may not fully recreate the family environment that we left behind, our main goal is to create a warm and friendly environment as close to it as possible,” Saidi said.


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