Miracle in Istanbul: A Uyghur School in the Turkish Exile

One of the pupils of Hira’i.


An interview with Lokman Hira’i, a self-taught teacher who keeps alive Uyghur language and culture among refugee children and teenagers in Istanbul.

Cultural Genocide in Xinjiang

Imagine a world in which your language becomes despised and more obsolete by the day. Where renowned authors disappear into the black holes of a political system gone mad, and their seminal works are consigned to the shredder. And where those found in possession of the banned books are also punished with years in the transformation through education camps, or worse still. Where children, forced to speak “Guo Yu” ( Xi Jinping’s new term for the “national language” to replace “Han Yu,” which means “the language of the Han”) among themselves at school, are increasingly unable to communicate with their parents and grandparents, or share the same love of Uyghur literature and poetry that runs in their ancestor’s blood. And where a proud 6,000-year history is being discarded on the trash heap of antiquity, to be replaced by a new enforced narrative dominated by Han culture and all things Chinese.

The Uyghur captives of this land are powerless to protest or challenge the descent into monoculturalism, on pain of certain incarceration, but the diaspora have taken it upon themselves to stem the tide of destruction and rescue their language.

A way to keep Uyghur culture alive: Ramadan calendars for the school’s students

A way to keep Uyghur culture alive: Ramadan calendars for the school’s students

Rescuing the Uyghur Language

One, Lokman Hira’i, a 29-year-old self-taught teacher and linguist who left Xinjiang to pursue further education in Turkey six years ago, abandoned his own dreams after witnessing his mother tongue rapidly disappearing even among the exiled youth who he had expected to keep it alive. “I couldn’t believe how fast the children and young people were losing their own native language,” he tells Bitter Winter, explaining that the similarities between Turkish and Uyghur enabled children to pick up the language of their exile easily and be fluent within a year. “And then they would have no need of Uyghur,” he lamented. “I could see that within a couple of generations, our language would disappear altogether.” “I had to do something to rescue it,” he said with a determination that had seen the flicker of an idea grow to a mushrooming reality within a short space of time.

He decided to start a Uyghur school in Istanbul where the Uygur language would be the medium of instruction. The purpose would be two-fold: to keep the language and culture alive, but also to act as a bridge into mainstream Turkish education for children who had little or no education themselves.

One of the pupils of Hira’i.

One of the pupils of Hira’i.

“Xi Jinping Wants to Destroy Uyghur Culture”

Eradicating the Uyghur language appears to be an integral part of Xi Jinping’s brave new push for the sinicization of Xinjiang, home to the Uyghurs, a nation of people whose love of poetry and prose is unequalled, but whose domain is rapidly being turned into a cultural desert to match that of the vast sandy wastes that fill much of its territory. Uyghur teachers whose Chinese language skills are not up to scratch are being let go in their droves, and armies of Han Chinese educators are flooding in from inner China to fill the gaps. Whereas until three or four years ago, Beijing’s main thrust was to take children to inner China for schooling, with those remaining still able at least to study their own literature in the mother tongue, now all the attention is being focused at home. Even those majoring in Uyghur literature at university must study through the medium of Mandarin language.

“The Uyghurs are not just an insignificant tribe of a few thousand,” said Lokman. “We are millions with a shared language, history and culture. More than the population of Australia.” “There could be at least 20 million of us scattered around the world,” he said. He accused the Chinese Government of consistently massaging Uyghur population statistics, which have not budged from around 10 million since the 1970s. “They say our numbers haven’t increased since then, which is ludicrous,” he said laughing. “How dare they try to eradicate everything that gives us a national identity?”

Lokman spoke of the many children arriving from Xinjiang as refugees in Turkey who had never been to school at all in their native region. “Many parents have been refusing to send their children to government schools at home, which were becoming increasingly political and atheistic,” he said. “So actually, a large proportion, particularly of newcomers, can speak Uyghur but are illiterate and completely unschooled. Unless something was done, they would have absolutely no future here.” He said that one of his main challenges was to bring these children up to speed educationally, so that they had a chance to enter the Turkish educational system.

Hira’i’s school pupils visiting Hira’i’s bookshop in Istanbul.

Hira’i’s school pupils visiting Hira’i’s bookshop in Istanbul.

His dream has not been without its critics. “Many parents, particularly those with limited education, couldn’t see the value of studying in Uyghur. They thought their children should learn the language of their new home,” he said. “But when I explained that through Uyghur their children could eventually enter mainstream education and have the chance of a career, they started to see the value.” “I also tried to instill a sense of pride in them for our national language,” he said. “They take it for granted but I tell them that they can be part of saving it for future generations. Once it is gone, it is gone forever,” he stressed.

The Uyghur School Flourishes Far from Home

While funds could still be transferred from China, relatives and friends who believed in the project used to send donations. With the first batch he bought a five-story building and opened for business with basic Uyghur, English, Arabic and Math’s courses. 100 children enrolled the first year. By the end of last semester there were 370 children and this term opened with 500. Already they have outgrown the original building and rent part of a local Turkish school to accommodate the huge numbers of primary children signing up this year. A fleet of busses ferry the children backwards and forwards from all over the city and the flood of enrollments show no sign of abating. “My plan is to open sister schools around the city,” he said. “Actually 500 children seem a lot but considering there are 30,000 Uyghurs in Istanbul, it is a drop in the ocean.” “One day I want to see a Uyghur university here,” he added.

This year’s bumper intake of pupils, now having to take over a section of a local Turkish school.

This year’s bumper intake of pupils, now having to take over a section of a local Turkish school.

Lokman’s plan is not to make money. Since the reservoir of goodwill from Xinjiang dried up with the closing of the border, the school now runs hand to mouth. Many of the children are de facto orphans and a significant proportion of his intake are destitute. Teachers on a skeleton salary do the job for love, not for money, and the books are only balanced by charging older children, whose families have the means, $36 dollars a month and by offering adult courses in driving test competency and computing.

The gargantuan task of translating the relevant parts of the Turkish national curriculum into the Uyghur language falls to Lokman, whose achievements to date have been considerable. Already he has several volumes under his belt and the task seems endless. But he remains undeterred.

Turkish curriculum textbooks translated into Turkish by Hira’i.

Turkish curriculum textbooks translated into Uyghur by Hira’i.

Long-Term Plans to Expand

His plans are ambitious. He has built a recording studio in the school to record the books he has translated, and intends to voice-over cartoons into Uyghur to make learning fun. He has negotiated with Google to add Uyghur to their list of languages and he has plans to bring over international experts to teach computing. A recent cause for celebration came with the news of one of his graduates winning an “outstanding student” prize for the whole of Turkey. She had started her education in his Uyghur classes, soon progressing into mainstream Turkish schooling and then onto University. “We are so proud of her,” said Lokman.

The Orphan Children: “Some Saw Their Parents Shot”

Lokman’s mission is not purely educational but social and psychological. He worries about the many orphans in his care who have seen what no-one should ever see. “Some of them are inconsolable. They are depressed and hopeless about the future. I see them staring out of the window unable to concentrate, and can only guess what they have seen in their short lives,” he told Bitter Winter. “Some while escaping China through Thailand and Malaysia saw their parents die in front of them. Some witnessed their parents shot and two of the children saw their parents swept away by a river.” He cares for their emotional welfare as much as their academic progress, and great efforts are made to organize outings and fun activities. “If they spend too much time alone thinking of what they have seen, they will not survive,” he said. “We try to make them laugh and help them to forget,” he said.

The Uyghur community exiled throughout the world is mourning the loss of their homeland, families, friends and culture, and this is no less true of the community in Istanbul. All Uyghur passports in the homeland have been confiscated, family links have been severed, and relationships torn apart. No one knows when or if they will ever see their loved ones again. “In these situations, it is the children who always suffer,” said Lokman. “Keeping the language alive and giving it respect, is one way to ease the transition and the pain of exile.”

Hira’i’s school pupils receiving their Ramadan calendars

Hira’i’s school pupils receiving their Ramadan calendars

One Student Won a National Poetry Prize

One of Lokman’s students, 15-year-old Imran Sadai, originally from Yupurgha in Southern Xinjiang, won a national poetry award in Turkey recently for his moving description of abandoning his roots when he fled his homeland in 2016.

Imram Sadai

Imran Sadai

He is not alone in his mourning, and speaks for thousands of Uyghur children trying desperately to find a place in a new land far from the mountains and villages of their childhood. It is these that Lokman is trying to help. He gave to Bitter Winter one of Sadai’s poems:

“I grew up, but I left my land far behind. The snow-capped ice mountains,
The flowery meadows; they’ve all been left behind.
Behind, with my heart and my soul.

In the towns of my country. In the rivers of my village
Wherever my footsteps trod. That’s where my heart wanders still.

At the top of the mighty mountain. In those dim dark caves,
Where I wrote my poetry in their shadows. That’s where my heart and soul live on.

Those peaceful moonlit nights, when I lay with friends counting stars;
That’s where my heart and my soul still linger on.

A flag flutters in my chest. A fearless eagle flies, but
When I’m old and it’s time to leave this place, my dearest friends will be left behind to weep for me.

Oh, mighty homeland, my happiness tarries there with you.
My ancestral seat, the place where I belong. My verdant green oasis!
My dearest heart…is there…over there with you.”

Pupils of the schools (2019).

Pupils of the schools (2019).