The school in Istanbul keeping the Uighur culture alive

The school in Istanbul keeping the Uighur language and culture alive
4 min read
06 August, 2021
Lokman Hira'i left Xinjiang to pursue further education in Turkey but instead opened up the first-ever Uighur school in Istanbul, with the mission of rescuing, reviving and creating a safe place to restore its cultural heritage.
The school in Istanbul has taught over 2,500 students since it was established [Tasnim Nazeer, The New Arab]

Lokman Hira'i, a 31-year-old self-taught teacher who left Xinjiang, to pursue further education in Turkey, started the first-ever Uighur school in Istanbul to rescue and revive the Uighur language. The idea to start a Uighur school in Istanbul came to Hir’ai when he realised that many Uighur children did not know about their own language and culture.

“I decided to stop the university I was going to in Istanbul and instead teach Uighur to children. At first, I told my friends around me about this decision and they supported me. We started the first Uighur language course with more than 10 students. Uighur parents who heard about the school began to bring their children to us,” Hir’ai told The New Arab.

There are currently 217 Uighur children studying at the school which also offers classes for Turkish, English, IT, sewing and driving lessons for adults. Hir’ai says he has taught over 2,500 students since the school’s inception.

The Chinese government has placed over 1 million Uighurs in concentration camps resulting in many children being put into orphanages and having to adopt the Chinese language

In 2001, China abolished the teaching of the Uighur language in schools and began intensifying its crackdown against its Uighur population.

“My childhood was spent in Xinjiang and I know the situation of the children there. Children must go to school but all the schools there teach in Chinese. The children are not even allowed to speak their mother tongue or practice their religion,” Hir’ai explains.

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The Chinese government has placed over one million Uighurs in concentration camps resulting in many Uighur children being put into orphanages, having to adopt the Chinese language and change their original Uighur names to Hans Chinese names.  

“Most of the Uighurs in our school came in the years between 2014 to 2016. The parents of most of those children are in Istanbul but a small number of children have no parents at all or only one parent. The parents of many of the children we teach are now in prison in China.”

Uighur's fleeing Chinese repression often leave behind many family members [The New Arab]
Uighur's fleeing Chinese repression are often forced to leave behind many family members [The New Arab]

Hira’i was originally born in Urumqi where he lived most of his life. His parents had come to visit him on a trip to Turkey and were unable to return to China due to the dangers posed on Uighurs, but they have not heard from any of their relatives back in Urumqi.

“I don’t know if they are dead or alive. My mother died of coronavirus last year. My dad is 79-years-old this year but he remembers his homeland every day. He looks away from the window missing his motherland and his other children there.”

Hir’ai believes that the persecution of Uighurs is due to a deliberate attempt to erase Uighur identity and culture.

“I think the Chinese government is slowly trying to eradicate the Uighur language and culture and to erase a nation called Uighur in the world. We are doing our best to protect all of this.”

Qutayba is a ten-year-old student at the Uighur school Hir’ai runs and arrived in Istanbul in 2016 with his father and three brothers.

With fears of the Uighur genocide reaching reaching new levels of systematisation, Uighur's able to flee are the lucky ones [The New Arab]
With fears of the genocide reaching new levels of systematisation, Uighur's able to flee are the lucky ones [The New Arab]

“My mother stayed in our hometown because she didn't get a passport but if we had waited for my mother, our safety may be threatened,” Qutayba told The New Arab.

Qutayba’s father has been working to support his sons whilst putting his children in the Uighur school and has now become an editor in Turkey.

The family found out that their mother was arrested for the last 14 years in Xinjiang and have no way of contacting her to find out about her wellbeing or whether she is alive.

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“I look at my mother's picture every day and miss her so much and long to meet her. I hope to save my mother. I always see her in my dreams, she hugs me and my brothers. I remember my parents when I see other kids waking on the street with their parents and I hope that I can walk with my parents like others altogether.”

Hira’i hopes that children like Qutayba will find solace and hope in preserving their real identity and ensuring that they have a better future ahead.

There are a number of missing Uighur children who have been separated from their parents, or vice versa after fleeing China and moving to Istanbul, but Hir’ai wants to see them all reunited once again.

“I hope that friends around the world will stand by the truth, recognise what China is doing as genocide. Uighur children abroad learn the language of the country in which they live but then they slowly forget their own language, but we will do our best to protect Uighur language (through this school).”

Tasnim Nazeer is an award-winning journalist, author, and Universal Peace Federation Ambassador. She has written for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, Middle East Eye, CNN, BBC, and others. She was awarded the FIPP the global network of media Rising Stars in Media Award 2018.

Follow her on Twitter: @tasnimnazeer1