Promising Uyghur university graduate dies in Turkey quake

Aspiring teacher, young man had left Xinjiang to seek better life, was on cusp of new job.
By Arslan Tash for RFA Uyghur
2023.02.10
Promising Uyghur university graduate dies in Turkey quake People stand beside the rubble of a collapsed building in the southeastern Turkish city of Kahramanmaras, on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023.
Credit: AFP

The hopes and dreams of a 24-year-old Uyghur man who had left Xinjiang to seek a better life were destroyed in the rubble and dust of an earthquake that devastated southern Turkey this week.

An aspiring teacher, Abdulla Wali Alim had aced a civil servant exam and was waiting for a job assignment, seemingly on the brink of a fulfilling career after leaving his homeland and parents 10 years earlier – when disaster struck.

His voice could be heard in the ruins of an apartment building that collapsed when the 7.8 quake struck before dawn Monday. His friend Abdulla Taghliq said he began searching through the rubble, knowing that Abdulla was trapped and that there was a chance of saving him.

He was uncovered alive but unconscious, seven hours later, then taken from the city of Kahramanmaras 12 hours by ambulance to Istanbul, which lies more than 1100 kilometers (800 miles) away. But it was too late.

“We took him to the intensive care unit of the hospital by ambulance,” Abdulla Taghliq told Radio Free Asia. “The doctors tried to save him, but his breathing stopped, and my friend passed away.”

ENG_UYG_AbdullahAlim_02082023.2.jpg
Abdullah Alim, a recent Uyghur graduate of Kahramanmaras Sutcu Imam University, was killed in the earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. Credit: Handout photo

News of his death quickly spread among the 50,000-strong Uyghur community in Turkey and beyond.

“Abdulla was honest, kind and righteous,” Taghliq said. “He was two years younger than me. We were close friends and always together. We had a meal together one day before the earthquake.”

The disaster, which has claimed more than 20,000 lives across both Turkey and Syria as of Thursday, has sent tremors through the Uyghur diaspora. A small group of Uyghurs have been helping in the relief effort.

Oppressed at home

Abdulla’s journey to Turkey had been driven by the oppression his family felt at home, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, in China’s far west – land that the Uyghurs prefer to call East Turkistan.

During his youth, Chinese authorities were cracking down on the mostly Muslim Uyghur population, restricting their movements and punishing them harshly for seemingly minor offenses.

Sensing his three sons didn’t have much of a future at home, Abdulla’s father, Eziz Ahun, decided to send them away from their village, believing they would have more opportunities abroad.

Abdulla, and his older brother Zikrulla left home in 2013 – when Abdulla was just 14 – for Egypt, where they studied Arabic, Zikrulla told Radio Free Asia. 

Soon, they decided to move to Turkey to further their education in a country that has provided refuge for the largest Uyghur diaspora outside Central Asia because it has cultural, linguistic and religious similarities. Another brother, Obulqasim Eziz, wound up in the Netherlands.

Two years later, the brothers received crushing news: Chinese authorities had arrested and sentenced their father to seven years in prison, largely because he had sent his sons abroad. He died in jail several months later, though the sons were not informed of the reason for his death, Zikrulla said.

Devastated, Abdulla and Zikrulla threw themselves into their studies in Turkey, believing that their father paid a heavy price for the opportunity he gave them.

In 2016, the brothers were accepted by the Department of Islamic Science at Kahramanmaras Sutcu Imam University in the city of Kahramanmaras, which is about 450 kilometers (280 miles) southeast of the capital, Ankara.

They graduated in 2021 and became Turkish citizens. 

Abdulla wanted to work as a teacher, and spent months preparing for the state civil servant exam, which he passed with an excellent score, his friend Abdulla Taghliq said.

He was waiting for word on his job assignment when the quake struck, leveling his apartment building. 

After his death, his relatives collected his body and held an Islamic burial service for him Thursday afternoon at Istanbul’s Fatih Mosque.

Translated by RFA Uyghur. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Malcolm Foster.

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