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A Special School In Turkey For Kids Of Uighurs Caught In China's Crackdown

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And now to Turkey and a boarding school near Istanbul, which is a home to children caught in a geopolitical struggle. They're ethnic Uighurs who have escaped repression in China - their parents weren't so fortunate. They've been swept up in China's mass arrests back home. Joanna Kakissis went to meet the children as part of her series looking at Uighurs in Turkey.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Is this your room?

NURZAT: Mmm hmm.

KAKISSIS: It's morning in the dorm. And 10-year-old Nurzat lets me visit him in the room he shares with three other little boys. He climbs out of his bunk bed and heads straight to his locker. He takes out his most prized possession, a framed photo of him with his father.

So your dad's wearing a gray polo shirt. He's got a mustache, glasses.

Nurzat tells me he talks to this photo every day.

Can you tell me some things you say?

NURZAT: (Through interpreter) I miss you so much. Why can't you come here with me? What's happening to you? I think it's something bad because I can't call you.

KAKISSIS: Nurzat's skinny and shy, with huge brown eyes. He has not seen his family since 2015, when his parents sent him to live with relatives in Egypt. They told Nurzat they wanted to protect him from the Chinese.

NURZAT: (Through interpreter) I saw Chinese people in my town. But I didn't talk to them. My friends told me that the Chinese kidnap Uighurs and make them disappear and that they poison our food.

KAKISSIS: Most Uighurs are Muslim. The Chinese government calls them radicals and terrorists. It's imprisoned more than a million Uighurs in what the Chinese call reeducation camps to counter extremist ideologies. And human rights groups say China has also pressured other countries, including Egypt, to deport Uyghur exiles. Nurzat remembers when the Egyptian police came after his relatives in Cairo.

NURZAT: (Through interpreter) I was up watching cartoons when the grown-ups came in yelling. They told me to pack my clothes right away.

KAKISSIS: He fled to Istanbul in 2017 with a relative he calls big sister. One night, he overheard her talking to someone.

NURZAT: (Through interpreter) She didn't know I was listening. She said my dad had been arrested in China. I ran into my room, and I cried. I cried and cried until I fell asleep.

KAKISSIS: Then Nurzat's mother also disappeared in China. Not knowing where his parents are makes his stomach hurt.

NURZAT: (Through interpreter) I wrote a letter to my mom. But I didn't know where to send it. So I threw it away.

KAKISSIS: Uighur leaders in Turkey say there are between 400 and 700 unaccompanied Uighur children in the country. Boarding school founder Habibullah Kuseni began meeting these children a few years ago when he was teaching classes in his apartment.

HABIBULLAH KUSENI: (Through interpreter) These are children who didn't have enough to eat. They slept on the floor instead of a bed. I had to do something.

KAKISSIS: So with Turkey's permission and donations from Uighur diaspora, he built this 4-story boarding school in a seaside town outside Istanbul at the end of 2017. Nurzat moved in shortly after...

(CROSSTALK)

KAKISSIS: ...Along with 30 boys who are between 9 and 16 years old. They live four to a room. A dorm for girls is under construction.

The boys eat breakfast at a cafeteria before class. The classes here are open to all Uighur students, boys and girls.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing in Non-English language).

KAKISSIS: We visited several classrooms, including a religion course taught by a teacher in a full-face black veil - her students saying verses from the Quran. During the day, the students go to classes at a Turkish public school and come back for more classes at the boarding school. Most students and teachers we talked to did not want to give their last names because they're afraid China will punish their families.

KAMIGUL: This house is uptown. It is in a green and quiet neighborhood.

KAKISSIS: Kamigul teaches English. She notices that translating sentences about families or houses upsets her students.

KAMIGUL: Sometimes, when I teach, if it's about the families, they will start to cry. They don't talk anymore.

KAKISSIS: Do you try to do anything as a teacher when you see a little child crying?

KAMIGUL: I just say that, if you miss your mom, you can come to my home. And I can cook for you, any dish you want because this is the things that I can do for them.

KAKISSIS: She avoids talking about family separations. She does not want the students to see her cry. Her own parents are missing in China, apparently swept up in the wave of arrests.

KAMIGUL: Maybe you can't imagine that you don't have any contact with them. It's been two, three years. Even you cannot call. We don't know they are fine or what happened to them. We don't know. So we all have a problem.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing in Non-English language).

KAKISSIS: Another teacher, Arzigul, notices children tearing up while singing a Uighur alphabet song.

ARZIGUL: (Through interpreter) Children ask me, do we have to say goodbye to our parents and our homes forever?

KAKISSIS: Arzigul's a grandmother and makes goofy faces to make them laugh. But there are some kids she cannot cheer up, even during celebrations like the Muslim holiday of Eid. Last year, she saw three little boys tucked into a corner, refusing food.

ARZIGUL: (Through interpreter) They kept saying their family back home was cooking for them. I cried because it seems like they really only have this school and God.

KAKISSIS: We find those three little boys playing basketball at recess. They're friends. We go to the teachers' lounge to talk. Two of these little boys are brothers, Abdullah and Muhammet. Abdullah's 11 and serious with a thick, black pompadour. He tells me that he and his brother came to Turkey with their father four years ago. Their father went back to China to get their mother and siblings and got arrested.

ABDULLAH: (Through interpreter) Mom called us and said the Chinese police had taken away Dad. Then Mom said she couldn't talk to us anymore because they were going to take her away, too.

KAKISSIS: Abdullah says he tries to ask his teachers about his parents. But they always change the subject.

ABDULLAH: (Through interpreter) I don't want to bother them. But I always answer their questions.

KAKISSIS: The third boy is 10-year-old Nurzat. We met him earlier. He invites us back up to his room. There, the boys talk a lot about life back home, playing with siblings, eating yum yum noodles with the neighbor kids, running from sheep on their grandparents' farms.

MUHAMMET: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Muhammet says he wants to grow up really fast. His plan is to hack into Chinese computers and find his parents. Nurzat has much bigger plans.

NURZAT: (Through interpreter) I'm going to make myself so strong that I will beat up all the Chinese. I'll rescue my parents. And then I'll make myself little again, so I can grow up with them.

KAKISSIS: Nurzat holds that old photo of him and his father, his most prized possession. In it, Nurzat's a 4-year-old boy in oversized sunglasses and a bright yellow shirt. He's smiling as he leans into his dad's soft belly. Nurzat usually keeps that photo in his locker. But tonight, he's really missing his dad. And his stomach's starting to hurt. So he tucks the photo under his pillow. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Selimpasa, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.