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Turkey has been a refuge for some of China's Uighur minority. They speak a Turkic language and practice Islam, and they can protest repression back in China. But that's changing.
Joanna Kakissis has this first of three reports on Uighurs in Turkey whose comfort zone is shrinking.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in non-English language).
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: There are parts of Istanbul that feel familiar to even the most homesick Uighurs. There's a music shop where they strum a type of lute called a dutar and sing about missing loved ones.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in non-English language).
KAKISSIS: Outside, Uighur mothers in headscarves and full-face veils push children on playground swings...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Praying in non-English language).
KAKISSIS: ...As grandfathers with long, white beards pray in nearby mosques, free to be devout Muslims in ways they cannot be in China.
At least 35,000 Uighurs now make their home in Turkey, mainly in Istanbul. Many do not have legal residency, but they do have their own schools, bookstores, bakeries and even a resident poet in exile, Abdurehim Parach, who arrived in Istanbul in 2014.
ABDUREHIM PARACH: (Through interpreter) I remember how warmly I was greeted at the airport then. The Turkish immigration agents even seemed happy to see me.
KAKISSIS: Parach has had his ups and downs in Turkey in the years since, but he has felt safe enough to write poetry, something that got him arrested in China. When I meet him in a Uighur spicy noodles diner in Istanbul, he's flipping through a collection called "Breathing In Exile." He finds a verse describing how Uighurs feel lost and unheard.
PARACH: (Through interpreter) We await a thundering so great that it shatters stars, that it awakens fate to save us from a void of eternal scars.
KAKISSIS: Parach wrote this verse a couple of years ago, just as China began making international headlines for imprisoning more than a million Uighurs in what it calls re-education camps. These camps are supposed to counter what Chinese authorities call the extremist ideologies of Uighurs.
Parach's book of poems was finally published in Turkey in December 2018. A couple of months later, two Turkish men showed up at a restaurant where Parach was eating.
PARACH: (Through interpreter) These men were wearing regular clothes, but they said they were police officers. They said I was under arrest, but they didn't say what for.
KAKISSIS: He was shocked and confused. His poems criticized China, not Turkey. And yet it was the Turkish police ordering him to sign a statement confessing to terrorism.
PARACH: (Through interpreter) They beat me, but I would not sign it.
KAKISSIS: Parach says he was held for three months in a dark, cold building hundreds of miles from Istanbul. He says he met at least 20 other Uighurs there who had been threatened with deportation to China.
PARACH: (Through interpreter) I'm not sure if China's putting pressure directly on the Turkish government or if the Chinese have infiltrated Turkish society to frame us as terrorists. But what's clear is that when you stand up to China, you're seen as a threat wherever you are.
KAKISSIS: NPR spoke to more than a dozen Uighur exiles in Istanbul who say Turkish authorities arrested and threatened to deport them. One woman told us she was dragged out of her home in the middle of the night as her terrified children watched. A father of three says he was jailed with his entire family. One Uighur activist has counted 200 such detentions in the last year alone. That activist only gives his first name, Anwar, and says he often protests outside the Chinese Consulate in Istanbul, trying to draw attention to abuses back home. One day last October, he was pulled off the metro by Turkish police.
ANWAR: (Through interpreter) At the police station, they didn't ask me anything except, do you want to call the Chinese embassy?
KAKISSIS: At a Uighur bazaar where women are selling fresh dumplings, I meet a young mother who just gives her name as Asma. She's too afraid to reveal much more. She describes a phone call she got from an official in China late last year.
ASMA: (Through interpreter) He knew everything about us. He even sent us photos of our families in China. The man told me we had to spy on other Uighurs. He said, if you don't, you don't know what bad things might happen to you.
KAKISSIS: She refused to cooperate. A couple of weeks later, her husband was arrested by Turkish police. He and other Uighurs we interviewed were eventually released, but NPR was able to confirm that Turkey deported at least four Uighurs last summer to Tajikistan. Jennetgul Tursun, who is related to three of the deportees, says they were immediately passed on to China.
JENNETGUL TURSUN: (Through interpreter) It's so difficult for me to accept that Turkey did this - Turkey, the land that is like our home, where the people are like our own.
KAKISSIS: Human rights groups say Turkey is not the only country that China is pressuring to intimidate Uighurs. Nicholas Bequelin of Amnesty International says China has already forced countries in Central and South Asia and the Middle East to detain and deport Uighurs in order to silence them.
NICHOLAS BEQUELIN: They don't want witnesses. They don't want people who can talk to the degree of political, cultural, religious repression simply because it's shocking and beyond the pale.
KAKISSIS: He says the Chinese do not want Uighurs to secure the kind of worldwide sympathy enjoyed by Tibetans, another oppressed ethnic group in China.
BEQUELIN: And that is one of the reason why they have played the Muslim card so much. China tars the Uighurs as being terrorists and separatists.
KAKISSIS: And blames them for attacks on Chinese cities - China also points out that about 300 Uighurs joined ISIS several years ago, a fact also noted by Cevdet Yilmaz, the foreign affairs chief for Turkey's ruling party. He denies his country has a new policy against Uighurs but said...
CEVDET YILMAZ: Of course, we have to differentiate between terrorists and normal people. But if there are some security issues, Turkey and China can come together and discuss about the security issues. Of course, we don't also want to see this harm our relations with China.
KAKISSIS: Relations, he says, that Turkey is working very hard to strengthen.
YILMAZ: We also believe that Uighur people should solve their problems, if they have any, with Chinese authorities. And they are citizens of China, of course. We expect them to be a bridge between Turkey and China, rather than a divisive issue, actually.
KAKISSIS: To Uighur exiles in Turkey, this sounds like they're being sold out. They don't want to be a bridge.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Non-English language spoken).
KAKISSIS: They want to be able to speak out, to demonstrate against China's abuses. They want to fly the baby blue flag of the homeland in China they call East Turkestan. This is a homeland that poet Abdurehim Parach longs for.
PARACH: (Through interpreter) If I'd known this would be happening to us, that China would be chasing us everywhere, I would have just stayed there and gone to prison. At least I would have died at home.
KAKISSIS: So now, like many Uighur exiles in Turkey, he is hoping to find refuge in Western Europe. He's heard people there don't like refugees or Muslims, but he does hope they might stand up to China.
For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Istanbul.
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