Uighur childen attend a Uighur-language school in Istanbul. The relationship between Uighurs and Turkey stretches back centuries. Photograph: Ozan Köse/AFP via Getty Images
n Hayrı Gül’s house, there was a lot to do before the Eid al-Fitr, or Bayram, holiday marking the end of Ramadan began on Saturday. There were traditional sangza noodles to bake, then twist into ropes and pile into pyramids. Special occasion clothes needed to be washed and ironed.
Celebrating the Muslim holiday is a freedom Gül and her four children did not have at home in China’s western Xinjiang province, the Uighur homeland, where over the last few years the authorities have suffocated the ethnic minority’s cultural practices and turned the entire region into a police state subject to strict surveillance even inside their homes. Up to 1 million people have disappeared into re-education camps in what China says is a necessary measure to stamp out extremism.
When the family fled the crackdown in 2016, the 42-year-old was forced to leave her husband and youngest son behind because the state would not issue them passports. Contact with them stopped later that year, and she no longer knows if they are alive or dead. But here in Istanbul, Gül is grateful that at least some of the 12-million-strong Uighur population have found a place to keep their cultural heritage alive.
“I miss my homeland and my family every day. I cry a lot with the pain,” she said at her home in Istanbul’s Zeytinburnu neighbourhood. “I love life in Istanbul. I wish they could be here too. My children have freedom here we could not imagine before.”
The relationship between Uighurs and Turkey stretches back centuries: once connected by the Silk Road, the peoples share a religion, cultural ties and similar Turkic languages. Uighur men who fought for the Ottoman empire rest in the vast second world war graveyards in Çanakkale, or Gallipoli; during the Communist revolution in China in the 1940s, the Turkish republic recognised the breakaway Uighur state of East Turkestan and opened its doors to refugees.
In the last few years, Istanbul has become the largest diaspora hub in the world for displaced Uighurs. The community in Turkey numbers approximately 50,000, the majority of which live in Istanbul’s Sefakoy and Zeytinburnu neighbourhoods. About 11,000, like Gul’s family, have arrived recently after fleeing the persecution at home.
In exile, Uighur culture has flourished in a way that was impossible in Xinjiang: several publishing houses, bookshops and cultural centres that would have been banned in China have opened in Istanbul. Artists and intellectuals have platforms and audiences for their work; artisanal workshops, many run by women, sell colourful traditional clothing and homewares.
At the Nuzugum Family and Culture Association, named for a Uighur historical heroine, its founder, Münevver Özuygur, cares for 210 families, giving children a chance to connect with their heritage in Uighur-language lessons after school while their mothers work at the neighbouring textile centre.
“Almost all their husbands and fathers are missing in the camps,” Özuygur said. “Here we have a strong sense of community and help women become financially independent and look after themselves.”
Life in Turkey is not without difficulty – and an increasing sense of danger. While President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the only Muslim world leader to publicly denounce China’s clampdown on Muslim minorities as a “cultural genocide”, as Turkey has lurched into economic meltdown and alienated former allies his stance appears to have softened.
Since 2018, Ankara has turned to Beijing for a $3.6bn (£2.9bn) loan, along with Chinese investments in state infrastructure projects and credit swap lines to bolster Turkey’s depleted foreign exchange reserves.
Uighur activists say the financial help has come at the cost of their safety: dozens of people have been detained by Turkish authorities and threatened with deportation.
Last year, a woman called Zinnetgul Tursun and her two young daughters were extradited to Tajikistan and then China. She has not been heard from since.
Many Uighurs in Turkey report phone calls from Chinese police threatening family members still in Xinjiang if they did not stop campaigning against the ruling Communist party’s policies. Residency paperwork is now harder to obtain, leaving about 2,000 people without the legal right to stay. Humanitarian protection papers promised by the Turkish interior ministry cover access to healthcare, but do not allow recipients to work.
Even as China’s long arm infiltrates their haven, some campaigners are buoyed by how the Covid-19 crisis has refocused international scrutiny on the situation in Xinjiang.
“It’s sad that it’s taken deaths all over the world for people to wake up but in some ways coronavirus has been a blessing in disguise for Uighurs,” said Arslan Hidayet, an Australian Uighur activist who now lives in Istanbul.
“East Turkestan, Tibet, Hong Kong are all victims of China’s destructive policies. What the world is learning now is that China will arrive on everyone’s doorstep eventually. There is realistic talk now of sanctions and boycotts against Beijing. We have achieved maybe 20 years of advocacy in the space of a few months.”