Homeless and rootless: Uyghur youth struggle with destitution on the streets of Istanbul
Peering through an opening in the brickwork, the space was dark and airless. In the gloom, Abdusemi (Semi) could make out piles of rubbish heaped against the walls and plastic water bottles strewn over wooden planks randomly scattered over the concrete floor.
Four shadowy figures huddled around the glowing embers of a small fire.
"Some as young as 14 and 15 have been drawn into drugs and a life of vagrancy. They now begin a new life in the back streets and demolished buildings of Istanbul"
The roundups and imprisonments at home in Xinjiang swept away the foundation of their lives, severing every link with families and friends and drying up all funding and contact with their past life. Thwarted in their dreams to study freely abroad and left penniless and rootless to fend for themselves, they fell prey to gangs and the underworld, simply to survive.
Some as young as 14 and 15 have been drawn into drugs and a life of vagrancy. They now begin a new life in the back streets and demolished buildings of Istanbul.
Tonight however their discovery by Semi as he made his nightly rounds of the neighbourhood heralded the possibility of a fresh start from the web of drug trafficking and abuse into which they had fallen.
Abdusemi Hoten, an Uyghur himself for whom this kind of life had become a real possibility in 2016 when he too was abandoned to his own fate after coming to do business in Istanbul, is the voluntary warden of a hostel for these de facto orphans set up a year ago.
A joint venture between the Istanbul-based East Turkestan New Generation Movement Association (ETNGMA) and US-based Campaign for Uyghurs, the hope is that by offering safety, encouragement and a roof over their heads, the boys and young men will be drawn from addictions and restored to their former aspirations.
“Girls are usually taken in by families but the boys are much more difficult to place,” said Semi who longs to see these “orphaned” youths rescued from their “dark path” and restored to stability and a “bright future.”
“Some tell me they survived by agreeing to traffic drugs for Chinese agents in exchange for money and assurances their parents would be taken care of in Xinjiang,” said Semi. “How could they possibly know they were being taken advantage of with no guarantees for their parent's safety?” he asked. “But they were terrified that them being in Turkey could bring trouble for those they had left behind, so they did what the Chinese asked of them.”
As the lone warden and 24/7 supervisor of 32 young struggling Uyghurs between 16-25, he estimates in his neighbourhood alone there are 300 such disaffected Uyghur youths who have fallen prey to alcoholism, drug addiction and chaotic living since they were cast adrift in 2016.
Responding to the shocking discovery that their contemporaries had fallen through the net, the Uyghur youth organisation ETMTGA was given a four-storey building to convert into a house for up to 37 young men. This was the beginning of a complex and often torturous process of helping them piece their fractured lives together.
After only a year of operation, Semi reports fifteen free of drugs, who have resumed their studies and moved out. Others are on the way through a combination of activities, study, specialist medical and psychological help, a regular routine and above all a safe place to call home.
But he is overwhelmed by the need to expand the work. The issues they face are complex and one person alone cannot hope to meet the need.
"For the Uyghur youth left stranded and financially cut off in Turkey when parents were taken to the camps, the situation has been especially dire"
“The degree of trauma they have experienced cannot be underestimated,” says Semi, who described the current climate for Uyghurs everywhere. “Daily we hear reports of torture, rape, lengthy prison sentences and children being abducted and placed in Chinese orphanages.”
Imagining the fate of their parents and loved ones is too much to bear, he said, “This coupled with the fact that they may never see each other again is an agony they live with every moment of every day.”
Semi’s own future prospects were turned around by an uncle who saw his potential and persuaded him to study. He describes his initial carefree months in Turkey as full of hope, but with news that his once-prosperous family had disintegrated, his mother had been taken into a camp and his father sentenced to five years in jail, he fell apart. Penniless, he drifted onto the streets, fell into drugs and grew his hair and beard long. He was gently steered back, completed his first degree, has now embarked on a PhD and is determined to help other youths like him.
He is convinced that without role models the youth in his care are destined to drift, and does everything in his power to help them.
Speaking on behalf of Campaign for Uyghurs, which put up the initial funding for the project, Public Affairs & Advocacy Director Julie Millsap described the fall out of China’s so-called “War on Terror” in terms of millions of everyday lives that have been thrown into turmoil.
“For the Uyghur youth left stranded and financially cut off in Turkey when parents were taken to the camps, the situation has been especially dire,” she said expressing gratitude for those who have backed the project with time and finances. “We are proud of the youth who are excelling there, and we hope to have more people join us in growing the resource pool available for them.”
The author is writing under a pseudonym to protect her identity