Searching For a Path to Freedom

Over the past 60 years, tens of thousands of ethnic Uyghurs from northwest China’s Xinjiang region have fled oppression and political violence at home, seeking refuge in the west. This mass migration has increasingly drawn the attention of the global community in recent years.

While the largest Uyghur communities outside of China are located in the Central Asian nations of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, sources say that more Uyghurs and other Turkic speaking Muslim ethnic minorities are choosing to emigrate to western countries since an initial wave resettled in Turkey during the 1950s.

This investigative project tells the stories of these Uyghur communities in the west, tracing the paths of these refugees from different points in history as they travel the globe searching for a path to freedom.

Speaking from his home in New York, 86-year-old Ghulamiddin Pahta told RFA’s Uyghur Service that thousands of ethnic Uyghur and Kazakh minorities were forced to leave their homeland when soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) arrived in Xinjiang at the end of 1949, following the communist takeover of China.

Pahta said that the refugees braved severe conditions during the winter months as they trekked through the Himalaya Mountains on their way to India’s Kashmir region.

“I joined thousands of Uyghurs from [the Xinjiang capital] Urumqi, Kashgar, Hotan and other regions of the Uyghur homeland in crossing the Himalaya Mountains during the hardest winter months, enduring tremendous difficulties before arriving in Kashmir’s Srinagar city in India,” Pahta said.

A group of Uyghurs who succeeded in escaping at the time of the communist Chinese invasion and who took refuge in Kashmir, India. (Summer, 1950)

“Kashmir was full of Uyghur and Kazakh refugees at the time. Large numbers of individuals traveling with us died in the Himalayas because of the cold,” he said. “When I arrived in Kashmir, I heard from my uncle Ebeydullah, who was president of the East Turkestan Refugee Association, that 11,500 refugees had traveled to the region and more than 400 had died on the way.”

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Muhammad Emin Bugra (second from left) and Isa Yusuf Alptekin (second from right), the two leaders of Uyghur refugee community in exile, with Kashmir governor-general Sheyh Abdulla (Summer, 1950)

Many Uyghurs refer to Xinjiang as East Turkestan, because the region had come under Chinese control following two short-lived East Turkestan republics in the 1930s and 1940s.

Despite the frigid winter weather, Pahta said, the Indian government forced the majority of the refugees to resettle in other countries soon after their arrival in Kashmir.

“Muhammad Emin Bugra and Isa Yusuf Alptekin, the two leaders of Uyghur refugees and the East Turkistan Refugee Association… wrote letters pleading for help to the United Nations, as well as to the governments of the U.S. and Turkey, and before too long, the U.S. and Turkey answered their call,” he said.

“At that point, the Uyghur refugees in Kashmir faced a difficult choice. Seven Uyghur youths decided to go to the U.S. in order to pursue an education there, while the rest of the crowd chose to immigrate to Turkey. Most of the youths who initially went to the U.S. later resettled in Turkey.”

Turkey resettlement

Muhammad Emin Bugra (left) and Isa Yusuf Alptekin (right), the two leaders of Uyghur refugee community in exile with the Turkish Foreign minister Dr. Fuad Köprülü (1952, Ankara, Turkey)

In one instance, the Turkish government took in nearly 2,500 Uyghur and Kazakh refugees from India in 1952. The refugees were taken by ship through the Persian Gulf to Basrah in Iraq and boarded trains for Istanbul and Turkey’s other provinces, where they established “Turkistanli” communities in the regional seat. Pahta, who was already living in Istanbul with his father in 1952, visited at Kayseri when the refugees arrived to “be with people from our motherland.”

“Some of the immigrants were given free houses with yards, while others were given two-story apartments by the Turkish government,” he said. “The government did not impose taxes on them until they were fully integrated [in society] and on their feet. As time has passed, the year of 1965 and 1967, hundreds of Uyghur refugee arrived to Turkey’s Kayseri province, where they gradually established a “Turkistan mahallasi” (Turkistan neighborhood).

Pahta said he had recently traveled to the “Turkistan mahallasi” in Kayseri and found it had “completely transformed” over the last 64 years. “There are many skyscrapers in the area and it is booming,” he said.

Hamuthan Göktürk, a Uyghur intellectual based in Istanbul, told RFA that prior to 2009, there were 800 to 1,000 Uyghur families living in his city, while the total Uyghur population in Turkey numbered between 3,500 and 5,000. But since 2009, and particularly since 2015, he said, an increasing number of Uyghurs have fled repressive policies in Xinjiang to start a new life in Turkey—most of whom traveled through various routes in Southeast Asia.

Rights groups accuse the Chinese authorities of heavy-handed rule in Xinijang, including violent police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people. Göktürk estimates there are now between 12,000 and 15,000 Uyghur immigrants living in Turkey.

Other European nations

Many Uyghurs have also resettled in other European nations via Turkey.

Dolkun Isa, chairman of the executive committee of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, told RFA that around 1,000 Uyghurs currently reside in Germany. The first wave of Uyghur immigrants appeared in Germany between 1950s and 1970s, many of them moved to the country from Turkey in this period, with the highest concentration now located in Munich.

According to other Uyghur exile groups, some 3,000 Uyghur refugees have immigrated to Sweden since 1996 and as many as 2,000 moved to the Netherlands beginning in 2001. Another 2,000 are estimated to have relocated to Norway since 1999, after two asylum seekers were placed there through the United Nations’ refugee resettlement program.

Moving to Afghanistan

In the early 1960s, China allowed hundreds of ethnic Uyghur families to emigrate to Afghanistan to join relatives amid improved relations between the two countries, but many relocated to Turkey when they were barred from promoting the Uyghur cause by forming Uyghur Associations in Afghanistan..

By the end of the 1950s, oppressive ethnic policies had sown mistrust among Uyghur residents of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in northwestern China, while poor economic planning led to one of China’s worst famines on record, exacerbated by deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union.

As part of Beijing’s exploration of diplomacy with other nations, China reached out to Afghanistan, with which it shares a sliver of border at the western edge of Xinjiang. When asked what they sought from improved relations, an Afghan delegation visiting Beijing in 1959 called in part for Uyghurs to be permitted to live with their relatives in Afghanistan across the border and vice versa.

Seyit Rizwan Tümtürk, an elderly Uyghur in Kayseri who moved to Afghanistan when he was young, told RFA that more than a hundred families with adults, elders and children from from Yarkand and Kashgar moved to Afghanistan in 1961. He said that most of the Uyghur immigrants settled down in Kabul and rest of them stayed temporarily at other Afghan towns at that time.

Emrulla Efendigil, 60, who moved to Afghanistan as a child and now lives in Turkey’s Kayseri city, told RFA that after a subsequent visit by then-Afghan prime minister Mohammed Daoud Khan to Xinjiang’s Kashgar (in Chinese, Kashi) prefecture, China agreed to the immigration plan.

“After that, those who applied to immigrate to Afghanistan to be with relatives were approved, including 105 families from my hometown of Yarkand (Shache) who applied in 1961,” he said.

Efendigil, who was eight years old at the time, and his family then set out on their journey across the border on foot, enduring frigid weather during the trek through the Pamir Mountains.

“We were young children traveling with our mothers and fathers,” he said, adding that his younger brother and sister made much of the journey in fruit baskets slung over the back of the family horse. “I remember one night while we were on the road, we had to sleep outdoors before continuing our journey the next day. We put one carpet underneath us and used another as a blanket. The next morning, we woke up with a thick layer of snow covering us.”

The group first arrived in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, just across the border, before traveling through Kunduz province and on to Kabul.

Mehmet Erginekun, who was 18 years old in 1961, said he had to drop everything and prepare to leave when he received word that his family was given approval to immigrate to Afghanistan.

“I was working in a factory near Kashgar’s Kansu mountain—a jointly-owned Chinese and Soviet factory,” Erginekun told RFA during an interview at his home in Turkey’s Kayseri city. “One day, I received a letter from my father saying, ‘Son, we will be leaving for Afghanistan soon. Come home at once.’ I left work immediately, packed my items and headed to Yarkand. The next day, we assembled at a school before departing. Once we left Yarkand, it took us 83 days to arrive in Kabul.”

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New Hardships

Seyit Tümtürk, the Kayseri-based vice president of the World Uyghur Congress exile group, told RFA that his relatives were among the Uyghurs from Yarkand , Kashgar and Ghulja (Yining), in Ili (Yili) prefecture, who were permitted to move to Afghanistan in 1961. However, like many of those who relocated, they found life in Afghanistan difficult because they could not speak the local languages and the Afghan government prevented them from promoting the Uyghur cause, forming socio-political organizations or engaging in political activities in Afghanistan out of diplomatic deference to China.

A Uyghur woman named Guli, who still lives in Afghanistan since relocating there as a young girl in 1961, said that her father died in the Pamir mountains during the journey and her remaining family of four struggled to make ends meet upon their arrival in Kabul.

“Since there was no man in the house, our financial situation was pretty poor and we used to have to make noodles at home to sell,” she said, adding that she had since married an Afghan and had four children of her own.

Emrulla Efendigil said that after arriving in Afghanistan, Uyghurs in Kabul earned money by opening restaurants, repairing watches and shoes, practicing traditional Uyghur medicine and working as tailors.

And despite the prohibition against supporting Uyghur autonomy in China, a group of community leaders—including his father—secretly established a Uyghur organization in the Afghan capital.

“At that time, because Afghanistan was a monarchy, establishing such an organization was forbidden,” he said, adding that the group routinely lobbied the United Nations over Beijing’s oppressive policies in Xinjiang.

But the organization was limited in what it could do and eventually, two of Turkey-based Uyghur leaders Muhammad Emin Bugra and Isa Yusuf Alptekin convinced the Uyghurs in Afghanistan that they would be better off resettling in Turkey because of language and cultural similarities, as well as strong political support from the Turkish government.

Uyghur and Kazakh refugees in Turkey organized a demonstration under the leader of Isa Yusuf Alptekin (second person from left), and protested against to the oppression of China’s Communist regime at their homeland (mid 1960s, Istanbul)

After successfully requesting that the Turkish government take them in as refugees, in 1965, only a few years after moving to Afghanistan, the first wave of Uyghurs decided to push on to a new country after they found the cultural divide too great and the Afghan government too restrictive of their bid to promote autonomy and the human rights of their fellow Uyghurs back home.

Saudi Arabia would not accept the group, and while some chose Canada, the U.S., and countries in Europe, the majority made the decision to resettle in Turkey because of its common cultural and religious ties.

An art team organized by Uyghur school children in Kayseri visit to Istanbul and showing Uyghur traditional art performances at the East Turkistan Refugee Association’s office in Istanbul (1968) The 103 families of new arrivals were welcomed with a 21-gun salute as they deplaned in the capital Ankara, moved into new homes constructed by the government in central Turkey’s Kayseri city, and were provided with household goods and furniture by local families.

The government also waived the Uyghurs’ taxes for 10 years and arranged employment for them at state-owned factories and other workplaces, though many also started their own businesses.

According to the sources, most of the young Uyghur refugees performed military service in Turkish Army at that time. Erginekun, Efendigil, Selcuk, Türkoglu and other Uyghur pensioners in Kayseri told RFA that they all experienced military life as Turkish soldiers during 1960s and 1970s.

Many of the Uyghurs adopted new family names on arrival to indicate their strong Uyghur-Turkish nationalism and integrate into their new community.

Turkish authorities provided some of the names to the new arrivals when they immigrated, while others were chosen by the Uyghurs themselves, and the word “Türk” was often incorporated into either the beginning or end.

A group of young Uyghur musicians and folk singers in Kayseri (in the end of 1960s) Kayseri became home to a community of around 700 Uyghurs with surnames that include Selcuk, Ilktürk, Tümturk, Göktürk, Türkoglu, Türkmen, Oguzhan, Cantürk, Öztürk, Özhan, Erginekun, Aydin, Turan, Turanli, Baykara, Baykal and Tugucu.

Life in Turkey for the Uyghurs was not always easy and many new arrivals faced tremendous difficulties adapting.

Mehmet Erginekun, who arrived during the 1960s as a young man, said that he had regularly questioned whether his family had made the right decision to leave home.

“After I arrived in Turkey… I probably worked at 20 or 30 different companies, as there were no counselors to guide us towards a career path,” he said.

“Once, I started work at a factory and they gave me a mop to clean the floor. It was so hard and I started to cry. All I could think of was that I had come all the way from [Turkistan] to clean floors. I did that for 18 months.” But Erginekun said he no longer has any regrets about resettling in Turkey. “We hear the call to prayer five times each and every day, and we always pray five times a day with the Muslims here without any restrictions,” he said.

“If we die, there are at least 10,000 people who will come to our funeral and pray for us. This is the kind of country we are living in.”

Second Wave

East Turkistan Refugee Association based in Istanbul organized an exhibition on routes and history of Uyghur Diaspora (1968) In the early 1980s, a second wave of Uyghurs moved to Turkey following the China’s government reform and open door policy. Some of Uyghurs who have relatives abroad applied for passports although the restrictions of leaving the country were still harder in Xinjiang than China’s inner provinces.

Abdulhemit Kahraman, a 58-year-old Uyghur who relocated to Kayseri in 1983, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that despite reforms in China at the time, he and his family still faced extreme difficulties in obtaining passports from the government.

“The main reason we were able to leave our homeland was because my uncle submitted a request to the UNHCR [United Nations refugee agency] on our behalf, asking for help in reunifying with our relatives,” he said. “Only then did the Chinese government allow us to leave.”

Kahraman said that he and 28 other members of his family left their home in Shirwik village, in Xinjiang’s Kargilik (in Chinese, Yecheng) county, in November 1983 and traveled through Pakistan and Iran before arriving in Turkey. But despite the hardships the family went through to resettle in Kayseri, 20 family members returned to Xinjiang soon after. “They couldn’t get used to the life here,” Kahraman said.

Others, like 47-year-old Abdulkerim Aydin, told RFA that the large and established Uyghur community in Kayseri made him feel very much at home when he arrived in the city in 1980 at the age of 11. “I felt as if I had arrived in Yengisar or Yarkand county [in Kashgar] when we first came here—we have never felt homesick,” he said of himself and his five brothers and sisters.

Rabiye Ilktürk, the head of the Department of woman and children of East Turkistan Culture and Cooperation Association based in Kayseri, said that after three generations, members of her Uyghur community have begun to intermarry with local Turks, blurring the lines of distinction between the two cultures.

“Local Turkish people here have always have been very close to us and treated us as though we all are from the same roots, and even asked for our hands in marriage back then, but it is only now that we have started to intermarry,” she said. “My parents said that they would only allow me to marry someone from our homeland, but these days our children are falling in love with Local Turks. Since they were born and grew up here, we allow them to make their own decisions in life. We also now recognize this country as our own.”

Adopted home

Uyghur dancing group from Kayseri were performing traditional Uyghur dance at an art festival in Istanbul (in the end of 1960s) Seyit Rizwan Tümturk, who has now spent more than half of his life in his adopted country, said that his fellow Uyghurs “love Turkey just as they love their own homeland.”

“The Turkish people view Uyghurs with respect,” he said. “We have suffered a lot because we do not have a country of our own.”

He said that he and his fellow Uyghurs are extremely appreciative of the Turkish people and government for taking in their community and are proud of their new nation. “They opened their home to us—accepted us and took us into their arms and gave us a chance to live how we wanted,” he said. “They did not discriminate against us. They treated us with respect and dignity. Therefore, we are grateful for everything this country has done for us.”

As Uyghur communities in exile increasingly assimilate into the societies of their adopted nations, unity among these groups will be key to preserving their collective ethnic identity, observers say.

Tens of thousands of Uyghurs have fled ethnic persecution in northwestern China’s Xinjiang region and many have chosen to immigrate to Western countries since an initial wave moved to Turkey during the 1950s.

Members of the mostly Muslim minority told RFA’s Uyghur Service that as exile communities adopt the cultural practices of countries in Scandinavia and Western Europe, they are losing their sense of what it means to be Uyghur.

Omer Kul, secretary general of the Istanbul-based East Turkestan Foundation, said that a lack of communication about Uyghur issues has led to disagreements between groups and hurt the global exile community’s ability to maintain a unified identity.

“Uyghur organizations and the Uyghur people need to come together and agree upon a common ground,” he said.

“Only then will Uyghurs be able to preserve their identity and communicate with the rest of the world in a clear manner.”

Kul said he regularly has to clarify basic facts and figures about Uyghurs, such as the population of the ethnic group, to the global community because of differing statements from various Uyghur organizations.

“Many of these figures are presented without evidence, which makes it impossible for us to verify many claims,” he said.

Varying accounts about Uyghur history and current events also create confusion, Kul said, weakening the ethnic group’s sense of identity and ability to achieve goals as a global community.

In one example, he said, Uyghur communities use different terms to refer to two short-lived republic established by Uyghurs in the 1930s, in what is now Xinjiang, including “East Turkestan,” “Islamic Republic,” “Turkistan Republic,” and “Kashgar Republic.”

New generation

Gulnar, an entrepreneur based in Munich, Germany, told RFA members of Uyghur communities around the world share common goals, but many are new to life in exile and too busy establishing themselves in their adopted countries to collaborate on larger issues.

“If we were in a position in which our livelihoods were not a concern, perhaps we would have more time focusing on these issues, but for now our lives are occupied with establishing our own wellbeing,” she said.

Gulnar suggested that the next generation of Uyghurs might take a more active role in working across exile communities to preserve the ethnic group’s cultural heritage.

“We must urge them to actively participate in Uyghur activities and events, introduce them to other Uyghurs, and instill our values in them from an early age,” she said.

“This is what I hope to see from the Uyghur immigrant communities.”

Other members of Uyghur exile communities agreed that educating Uyghur youth is essential to protecting their ethnic identity and forming a more unified diaspora.

Veyis Gungur, a Turk with longstanding ties to the Uyghur community in the Netherlands, said Uyghur immigrants must instill a strong sense of religious and cultural identity in their children so that they can tackle issues facing the ethnic group at home and abroad.

“Many people know of prominent Uyghur individuals from history … but are not necessarily aware of who the Uyghurs are as a people,” said Gungur, who is also president of the Turkish House organization.

“Uyghur youth should learn about these individuals and be able to explain who the Uyghur people are [to others] by referencing them … By teaching the youth about Uyghur history, we can instill a strong sense of Uyghur identity in them.”

Uyghur language

Community members also believe instructing youth in the Uyghur language can promote ties to traditional culture and transcend linguistic barriers between exile groups in different countries.

Qemeriddin Qaynam said he taught his son to embrace many languages in addition to Dutch after relocating to the Netherlands, but made his study of Uyghur a priority.

“One’s native language is an important aspect of who he is, and when one loses the ability to speak his native language, he has lost an important part of his identity,” he said.

Qaynam said he learned from Turkish families that had immigrated to other parts of Europe about how to instill a strong cultural and religious identity in his son, as well as provide him with a sense of pride and awareness of his heritage.

“In order to establish ourselves here, we must look and move forward and not look back,” he said.

“Ultimately, I don’t want my son to feel any void in his heart. I even take him to Uyghur classes on weekends, where he can interact with other children who look like him and have similar names. God willing, my son will grow up without losing his identity.”

Reported by Eset Sulaiman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.