ISTANBUL – Thousands of miles away from his home, young Shkur Abliz has finally found an opportunity to learn the Uygur language and Qur’an at Tangnuri language center in Istanbul, which were both forbidden in Xinjiang.
“We also learn Uygur customs and traditions: respecting the elders, the Islamic holidays and how to salute,” said Shkur, who goes to a Turkish school in the afternoon, South China Morning Post reported.
Asya Abliz, the mother of the eight-year-old boy, is determined to preserve as much as she can of her son’s Uygur identity as he grows up in a foreign country after fleeing China.
“I want to raise my two sons as Uygurs,” Asya said.
“I want to teach my children Uygur because, in East Turkestan (Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region), the language is forbidden. Our only hope is in the diaspora.”
The family, which fled China five years ago, comes from Karamay, an oil-rich city in Xinjiang, the heartland of China’s often restive Uygur Muslim minority.
The migration of Uygurs to Turkey goes back decades and distinct Uygur neighborhoods can be found in Istanbul and the central city of Kaiseri.
This has helped Uygur migrants, who speak a Turkic language with an Arabic-derived writing system, integrate while preserving some of their traditions and language.
“Until recently I never would have thought that the Uygur language was existentially threatened because there are millions and millions of Uygur speakers. The diaspora is a tiny percentage of the Uygur population,” said James McMurray, research associate and doctor in anthropology at the University of Sussex.
“It is very difficult to predict how things are going to go in China now because there has not been a situation like this before. It is imaginable now that China could seriously erode the Uygur language. Uygur communities are being interrupted in such a way that the ordinary process of pedagogy and cultural transmission can’t continue as they used to.”
The Uygur Ilim Market Vakfi school accepts children whose parents are in Xinjiang.
“We accept children from the age of six and we educate them until they graduate. In this way, we hope they don’t forget their mother language,” the school director Abdulgani Kutubi said.
Some schools – like Tangnuri – even publish their own Uygur textbooks.
“The students who were born here don’t really know anything about our culture and history, unfortunately,” teacher Abdureshit Niyaz said.
“Some students who came here four or five years ago, unfortunately also don’t know much.”
Despite all these efforts, Abduweli Ayup, a linguist, poet and staunch defender of the Uygur language, is pessimistic.
To keep them practicing, Ayup holds “Uygur weekends” where the five and 11-year-old girls must only speak or recite poetry in the language.
“In foreign countries, you cannot keep your language alive, it is impossible,” he said.
“It is not their fault if my daughters speak Turkish to me. I brought them here.”
He tells his children that if they forget the language, “how can you communicate with your grandmother, uncles, and aunts back in Xinjiang?”
Shkur goes to Tangnuri five times a week, including Saturday mornings, to keep the language of his parents alive.
“We are in Turkey, but we can live as Uygurs,” said Shkur.
“One day I want to go back to my motherland. With all my friends in Turkey, maybe we can go back and all live together with the Chinese people.”