Turkey closes Uyghur school in Istanbul after China complains

China apparently said the school violated Turkey’s own regulations, but some parliamentarians want it reopened.
By Jilil Kashgary
Uyghur children fill a hallway and wave at Hira Uyghur Elementary School in Turkey's capital Istanbul, Aug. 3, 2020.
Photo courtesy of Hira Uyghur Elementary School

Authorities in Istanbul closed a Uyghur elementary school there allegedly at the request of the Chinese government officials who worried students were receiving anti-China instruction, the principal and the parents of students said.

On Feb. 21, officials with the Istanbul Provincial Directorate of National Education locked the doors to the Hira Uyghur Elementary School and did not allow its more than 300 students to enter.

The school opened in 2015 by Uyghurs from western China’s Xinjiang region with permission from the directorate, said Loqmanjan Abdulla, who founded the school and served as its principal.

School officials said they were told that China had filed a complaint against the school.

Hira Uyghur School is located in a district of Istanbul where many Uyghurs have settled, some fleeing widespread persecution in Xinjiang. It taught students the Uyghur language and other subjects and offered instruction for Uyghur children who do not have Turkish residency and therefore cannot attend public schools.

It also taught English and Turkish as well as vocational skills like sewing and driving to adults.

Loqmanjan told RFA that he was summoned to the directorate and told to shut down the school because of a complaint from China that alleged its operation violated Turkey’s own educational regulations.

Officials told him that they could not allow his school to operate during the same hours as public schools, even though he said there was no conflict.

“They studied half-time in the national schools,” Loqmanjan said of his students. “The students who study there in the afternoons would come in the mornings, and the students who study there in the mornings would come in the afternoons.

“Unexpectedly, this appears to have drawn China’s attention,” he said. “I suppose they thought this was the work of the Turkish government, that we were taking steps toward setting up our own private, independent Uyghur school system, that the Turkish government made this possible for us, that they even gave us a school.”

In the complaint filed with Turkish government authorities, China also said the school violated Turkish rules by requiring pupils wear military uniforms for a school ceremony in 2019, Loqmanjan said.

“There’s nothing of substance here,” he said. “To say these were military uniforms is entirely false. They are not military uniforms.

“They are the same uniforms the kids wear in the national schools,” he said. “After we explained this, they looked into it and found that was indeed the case. As of now, this is the only thing China has said, based on a photograph from 2019.”

Loqmanjan said that Hira lightened the load on the public school system by offering additional education to Uyghur students who may not be native Turkish speakers.

“We’re currently working on the issue, meeting with relevant offices, and thinking about how best to resolve the matter,” he said. “This is not something that anyone anywhere in the world should be opposed to. In other words, we are demanding our most basic rights as human beings.”

Levent Yazici, who is the head of the Istanbul Provincial Directorate of Education, told RFA that the school had not been shut down, although members of Parliament have publicly criticized its closure.

“Why would we have closed it? We haven’t closed it.” he said. “I am unaware of this matter. I have no connection to it. We’ll have to look into it and see.”

Uyghur students pledge allegiance to the flag of East Turkestan, Uyghurs' preferred name for northwestern China's Xinjiang region, at Hira Uyghur Elementary School in Turkey's capital Istanbul, Aug. 3, 2020. Credit: Hira Uyghur Elementary School
Uyghur students pledge allegiance to the flag of East Turkestan, Uyghurs' preferred name for northwestern China's Xinjiang region, at Hira Uyghur Elementary School in Turkey's capital Istanbul, Aug. 3, 2020. Credit: Hira Uyghur Elementary School

‘Embarrassing mistake’

The dispute over the school comes as Turkey and China have grown closer in recent years, including through a bilateral agreement to exchange information on money laundering and terrorism financing.

The agreement, which requires the provision of information on the financial activities of specific individuals and companies, has raised concern among Uyghurs in Turkey that it may limit their ability to promote Uyghur rights in China in the name of preventing terrorism.

As the two countries have grown closer, Uyghur migrants working in Turkey have been occasionally detained and placed in immigration detention centers.

Opposition party lawmakers in the Turkish Parliament who support the Uyghurs criticized the closure of the school.

Selçuk Özdağ, who is the deputy chairman of the Kelechek (Future) Party, said the decision was an “embarrassing mistake” and called on the ministry to immediately reverse it. He also said that his party intended to hold a press conference in front of the school.

“This is a disgrace on the part of the government that is currently leading the Turkish Republic,” he said. “To have closed the school based on alleged pressure from the Chinese government is shameful, too shameful even for the current government.”

The site for the Hira school was given to its founder when Future Party leader Ahmet Davutoglu was prime minister of Turkey.

Özdağ said authorities from the ruling party did not follow normal procedures to shut down the school in order to keep the decision quiet in order to avoid criticism from other countries.

“They [Education Ministry officials] are scared because they’re worried it will become a topic of international discussion,” he added. “They’re trying to be surreptitious and say they didn’t close the school, that it just closed on its own.”

Ayhan Erel, a lawmaker from the Iyi (Good) Party, told RFA that he would issue a formal parliamentary inquiry with the Minister of National Education. He referred to the Uyghurs’ preferred name for the Xinjiang region in China.

“We stand against this,” he said. “As for our Uyghur kin in East Turkestan, they are in fact living under oppression and ambush there. As the country of Turkey, for us to close their schools would be tantamount to breaking their arms and then just leaving them there, alone. Shall their spirit and their objectives amount to nothing? That will not happen.”

Another Iyi Party legislator, Hayrettin Nuhoglu, also criticized the school’s closure.

“We will do whatever we can as blood relatives [of the Uyghurs],” he added. “The school should not have been shut down. We will look into this and see what comes of it.”

A Uyghur migrant named Nuriye who did not want to provide her surname said her two children attended classes at Hira and that its closure saddened students.

“The children all loved [going to Hira] because they could speak in their own language and play their own games,” she said.

Principal Loqmanjan says he is now collecting a list signatures of local Uyghurs who want the school reopened, which he intends to submit to the government.

He said that Turkish authorities asked him to write a statement saying that Hira is not an official private school, but rather a supplementary educational institution where children take extra courses in their free time after school.

“We love the Turkish Republic, and we support the Turkish education system, but we also love our mother language and hope that we will be able to continue it,” he said. “This is the format we’re using to collect the signatures we plan to submit.”

Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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