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Two community centers in Turkey are changing young Uyghurs’ lives for the better

They offer courses on drawing, English and Uyghur history, as well as drug counseling.

By Uyghar for RFA Uyghur

August 6, 2023

Uyghur youths have dinner at the East Turkistan Youth Center in Istanbul, Turkey, in an undated photo.

For young Uyghurs from China’s Xinjiang region, Istanbul’s East Turkistan Youth Center has been a godsend during a difficult time.

One 25-year-old who arrived in Turkey in 2016 turned to the center for counseling after struggling with a drug habit.

“When I heard about this center and the support they were providing to Uyghur youth for free, I couldn’t believe my ears,” he said. “Before joining the center, I was involved in negative activities and used drugs like heroin.”

Abdusami Hoten, 30, co-founded the center in 2021 in Istanbul’s Safakoy district – one of the most heavily Uyghur-populated areas of the city – to offer guidance and housing for Uyghur youths.

The 25-year-old, who requested anonymity so as not to harm his future prospects, moved to Turkey to further his education. But he wasn’t able to enroll in classes – he was out of work and his parents’ plans to move from Xinjiang to Turkey fell through.

He became isolated and depressed and lost hope in his future. That’s when he turned to illegal drugs.

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

“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,” said Hoten, a Uyghur who has lived in Turkey since 2016.

Roughly 50,000 Uyghurs live in Turkey, the largest Uyghur diaspora outside Central Asia. The Turkish government has offered Uyghurs a safe place to live outside Xinjiang, where they face persecution.

But once in Turkey, some Uyghur youths have encountered unemployment, economic hardship and drug addiction.

Abdusami Hoten runs the East Turkistan Youth Center in Istanbu, which offers support and guidance to young Uyghurs to help them make positive changes in their lives. Credit: RFA

“Our wish for the youth is that they can, whether in the society or in a foreign country, avoid becoming a burden to others and instead actively contribute to both society and the Uyghur community, while embracing and preserving their ethnic identity,” Hoten said.

Since its inception, the center has served over 220 people, helping nearly three dozen young people recover from drug addiction, he said.

The 25-year-old has received treatment for his drug use and is learning about herbal medicine to become an herbal doctor.

Hoten has organized classes on psychology and Uyghur history, and other events that have offered new perspectives, the 25-year-old said.

“We received valuable advice from elders, and every week, we had food gatherings, strengthening our bonds like brothers,” he said. “Gradually, our interest in living increased, and we are incredibly grateful for the positive changes.”

Boxing, painting and host talks

A similar community facility for Uyghurs – the Palwan Uyghur Youth Center – was founded in 2019 by Samarjan Saidi, a 34-year-old Uyghur, as a place in Safakoy district for young people to 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.

Initially, Saidi wanted to create a family-like environment for Uyghur youths, so he and some friends set up a boxing club in a rented basement. Later, with funding from the U.S.-based Uyghur NextGen Project, they were able to move the boxing club to another facility and set up a youth center.

The main purpose of the center is to help young people prepare for college by providing guidance that aligns with their interests and talents, Saidi said.

Saidi was born in Qumul and raised in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi. He moved to Denmark in the early 2000s to go to school. After he graduated, he intended to return home and start a business with friends.

“However, in 2016, some of my friends who had returned home from Europe had their passports confiscated,” Saidi told RFA. “I decided not to return home for the time being.”

That year, Chinese authorities in Xinjiang began collecting passports. Uyghurs had to hand them in to authorities who said they would hold them for safekeeping and would return them for any necessary travel abroad. But that was not the case in most instances.

Uyghur youths from the East Turkistan Youth Center in Istanbul head to a protest against China in an undated photo. Credit: RFA

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 or prison for participating in “illegal” religious practices or activities deemed “extremist” or a threat to national security.

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

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

‘Warm and friendly environment’

As more youths joined, the center began offering English courses and organized social events, Saidi said.

With a computer and US$25,000 from the Uyghur NextGen Project, Saidi and his colleagues purchased new space for the boxing club and renovated it themselves. They also bought a nearby hair salon and turned it into the Palawan Youth Center.

“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.

When two 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 a Uyghur musician to provide instruction. They did the same for a young woman who wanted to learn how to draw.

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

“During Ramadan, we organize iftar [fast-breaking evening meal] events, preceded by speeches from religious figures and successful individuals,” he said. “We come together to eat, pray and strengthen our bonds during such events.”

Idris Ayas, a staffer who has lived in Turkey for 11 years and has a master’s degree in international law, has worked with young Uyghurs since 2019.

“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,” he said.

Translated by RFA Uyghur. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Matt Reed.


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