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Uighurs In Limbo In Turkey As They Search For Relatives Missing In China

Mar 15, 2020
Originally published on March 15, 2020 5:46 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to switch gears here for a few minutes to address another major story in another part of the world. Thousands of ethnic Uighurs have found refuge in Turkey after fleeing China, where they're accused of extremism and put in mass detention camps. NPR has been taking a look at these Uighurs in exile. Many are desperate to find loved ones back in China and to speak about their treatment there. But Joanna Kakissis in this last of three stories reports that now those efforts face new resistance in Turkey.

MUNIRA ARKIN: (Non-English language spoken).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: When Munira Arkin's father disappeared in China four years ago, the only thing that made her feel better was kicking a giant punching bag.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUNCHING BAG BEING STRUCK)

ARKIN: (Through interpreter) Boxing takes away the heaviness. You feel calm. It teaches those of us who are missing dads or brothers that we can protect ourselves and our families. (Shouting in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: Arkin's 17. She's dressed in all white - her headscarf, her karate uniform. She shouts commands to four teenage girls in "Star Wars" T-shirts. It's in these moments when she's kickboxing that she feels most confident somehow, she will find her dad again. But after class, when we sit down at a nearby cafe, reality sets in...

ARKIN: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: And she breaks down as she tells me what happened to him. Her family moved to Turkey in 2015. The following year, her dad went back to Xinjiang province in Western China to close up his export business. That's when Chinese police arrested him and then also arrested two of his brothers, who were trying to hire a lawyer for him.

ARKIN: (Through interpreter) I bought a plane ticket to China and decided I had to find him myself. I didn't care if I went to jail. But my mother found the ticket and hid my passport.

KAKISSIS: Munira has legal residency in Turkey - for now, at least. She says she's not sure how long Uighurs can stay here anymore. She's heard China is forcing Turkish police to arrest and even deport Uighurs.

ARKIN: (Through interpreter) I want to believe that Turkey will go on protecting us as they have always done. But I don't know anymore.

KAKISSIS: We walk into the Istanbul neighborhood of Zeytinburnu. The streets are lined with Uighur bakeries, kindergartens and restaurants where Ismael Cengiz is glad-handing Uighur imams having lunch. Cengiz's father fled Xinjiang in 1949. He was born and raised in Turkey.

ISMAIL CENGIZ: (Through interpreter) People come to me for help or information, and I try to do what I can through my connections.

KAKISSIS: He presses Turkish politicians to assist Uighurs searching for missing relatives in China. But he's not hearing much sympathy.

CENGIZ: (Through interpreter) What we're hearing instead is the Turkish foreign ministry telling Uighurs not to protest against China on Turkish soil.

KAKISSIS: He's noticed that Uighurs who have arrived in Turkey in the last five or six years struggled to retain Turkish residency permits. Turkish authorities have detained hundreds of them, sometimes for months, and threatened to deport them.

CENGIZ: (Through interpreter) We always wanted to believe Turkey would never allow us to be sent back to China. But what's happening to newcomers is making them nervous. Uighurs fled their ancestral home in China out of fear. They shouldn't have to deal with more fear here in Turkey, in their second home.

KAKISSIS: Turkey says it has not changed its policy on Uighurs, though it does seek better ties with China. But human rights groups say China has already pressured several other countries seeking closer relations with Beijing to detain and deport Uighurs. Nicholas Bequelin of Amnesty International lists a few.

NICHOLAS BEQUELIN: Central Asian republics - Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan. Pakistan has also been sending back Uighurs to China on a very regular basis.

KAKISSIS: Bequelin says China sees Uighurs who have fled abroad as terrorists and separatists, so Beijing pushes countries who want stronger economic relations with China to hand over Uighurs or at least intimidate them.

BEQUELIN: You see Turkey taking its economic interests with China at a greater and greater consideration and making more and more concession to what Beijing wants, which is to suppress the Uighur community, prevent Turkey from being a platform for Uighur exile organizations or advocacy on behalf of Uighur people.

KAKISSIS: He says what's likely keeping Turkey from deporting big groups of Uighurs, as other countries have done, is the support of Turkish citizens. Qurbanjan Nourmuhammad senses the solidarity. He cooks at a Uighur diner that has many Turkish customers. They know how much he has been agonizing over his missing son, Pakzat.

QURBANJAN NOURMUHAMMAD: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: While he stirs a giant pot of dumpling soup, he says his son disappeared in China at age 16.

NOURMUHAMMAD: (Through interpreter) My boy went back to China to visit his grandparents. All we know is that the Chinese arrested him at the airport when he arrived. We haven't heard anything since.

KAKISSIS: On his days off, Nourmuhammad and his wife stand in silence outside the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul holding giant posters of Pakzat. At night, he writes letters to world leaders asking for help.

NOURMUHAMMAD: (Non-English language spoken). At the moment, I'm trying to contact Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump. They're the only ones who are not scared of China. I've been really disappointed with the Muslim countries. They have been silent.

KAKISSIS: He and other Uighurs say they're being pressured by Turkey not to speak out so much anymore.

NOURMUHAMMAD: (Non-English language spoken). I even tell my children, don't fight back if Turkish kids hate you at school because then someone will call the police.

KAKISSIS: Getting arrested in Turkey these days feels like a prelude to getting deported, he says. And he cannot lose another child to China.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.