Kayseri, Turkey – In the quiet streets of a suburb of the historic central Anatolian city of Kayseri, a group of children play football. They are Uighurs and Syrians.
Thirteen-year-old Moaaz is the oldest among them. He is one of the five children of Mohammad Taufeeq, 55, who fled with his family from the Syrian city of Homs six years ago. Two of his sons are now grown up and have moved away from home, while the younger three – Moaaz and his two sisters – live with their parents in Kayseri.
Once a successful businessman running a garment factory in Syria, Taufeeq is now a scrap dealer and lives with his family in a two-room house in the “Turkistan Mohalla” of Kayseri – named after the Uighurs who came to live here in the 1990s. In the Turkish language, Xinjiang – where many Uighurs come from in China – is called Doğu Türkistan, or East Turkistan.
The community is still mostly populated by Uighur Muslims who fled the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang. But over the past few years, dozens of Syrian families have arrived.
Having both fled violence in their home countries, the Uighurs and Syrians of Turkistan Mohalla have found refuge in each other and their small community.
The children binding a community together
The space around Taufeeq’s house is filled with the scrap that he has collected – old furniture, iron, building materials. Here, Taufeeq says he has made a real home and found a place for his family to be at peace. His is one of the oldest houses in the “colony”. The family gathers and sleeps together in the room with a rusty old fireplace to ward off the cold.
Temperatures in Kayseri can fall as low as minus 25 degrees Celsius (-13 degrees Fahrenheit) in the winter. When I visit in December, it is sub-zero.
On this bright winter afternoon, after playing football, Moaaz welcomes all the other children to his family’s home. As they gather for some Turkish tea, the elders begin to arrive, sitting in the sun on makeshift chairs formed from the broken pieces of furniture Taufeeq has collected.
The children – who have learned Turkish at the local school – act as translators, since their elders do not share a common language. The Syrian families speak Arabic, while the Uighurs speak the Uighur language. Most of the Uighur adults have mastered Turkish as it is close to their own language. But many of the Syrians have struggled and know only a few words.
Moaaz’s older sister Taqwa, 15, says she teaches Turkish to the younger children.
‘When I hear their stories, I forget my own pain’
Abu Qasim, a 45-year-old Uighur who did not wish to give his full name, and Taufeeq offer the afternoon prayer together. Abu Qasim’s family lives on the same street and his three sons are friends with Moaaz. The two families have known each other for three years now.
“We are first bonded by humanity. Then by our religion and later by the pain we share,” says Abu Qasim, who speaks Uighur and Turkish.
A native of Kashgar city in China’s Xinjiang region, Abu Qasim says he fled after being subjected to persecution and torture by the Chinese authorities for having more than one child. He does not wish to talk more about what his family endured in China because he has heard of people who have been deported back after speaking out and his mother and siblings are still there, he explains.
“Turkey is our second home,” he says.
He left Xinjiang with his wife and children in 2015, crossing the border by foot and then travelling through several central Asian countries to Turkey. The family paid an agent $5,000 to help them leave.
“It took us six months to reach here,” he says. “We crossed borders on foot. Paid thousands of dollars to agents. And we had no guarantee that we would be reaching someplace where we would feel safer.”
Taufeeq’s story is similar. He and his family fled war-torn Syria in 2015, to escape the constant shelling and bombing. Their children had no school to go to and no future, he says.
“I have seen my own house coming down to rubble. In that moment, I never imagined I would ever sit again with my family in a house. All praise to Allah, I am happy to be here, where there is no fear of getting killed,” he adds.
The family first lived in the Turkish border city of Hatay, where they received a temporary residence permit, before moving to Kayseri and then to this community.
Taufeeq says that his Uighur friends provide him with the sort of support that no other community could. “They [Uighurs] are extremely civilised and they have seen worse than us. When my son tells me the stories of oppression he learns from his Uighur friends, I forget my own pain.”
A marriage of cultures
Before the Uighurs arrived and started to build their homes here, the colony was an empty area.
“This society came into being when many of us [Uighurs] fled our home and Turkey accepted us as refugees,” says Syed Rizwan Qadir who arrived in 1997. These days, the 90-year-old spends his time gardening. “Since then, this Mohalla has been expanding. And, now, we have other Uighur migrants too.”
As both Uighurs and Syrians are refugees, they receive assistance from the Turkish authorities. Syed Rizan Qadir’s son, Abdul Qadir, is the head of Doğu Türkistan kültür ve danışma derneği merkezi (East Turkistan culture and advocacy centre) and says various Turkish NGOs also donate food, materials and money.
“Besides the government, there are locals [Turks] who come and hand over the sacrificial meat, clothes, winter stock or material to me. I distribute equally among all families living here,” he explains.
Abdul Jabbar’s house is next door to Taufeeq’s. Jabbar, 40, is a Uighur and his wife, Rafiqa, 34, is from Syria. They met through friends in Turkey and married four years ago, before moving to this community. They now have four children.
Like many of the Uighur and Syrian refugees here, Jabbar works as a labourer in a factory in Kayseri’s large industrial area.
“We met through friends. We belong to two different cultures, two different parts of the world and this neighbourhood is the best place for us to live,” he says.
Arabic-speaking Rafiqa has picked up the Uighur language somewhat. But Jabbar says Arabic is too hard for him to learn. Both speak a little Turkish, which is how they communicated when they first met.
“We cook Uighur food mostly,” Jabbar explains. “My wife did not like it earlier. But now she has got used to it. I like Syrian food too, at times.”
‘It lightens my heart to see our children together’
Next door to their house lives Abu Qasim, whose wife, Zainab, who is in her early 40s, has helped Rafiqa learn to cook traditional Uighur food.
The two families gather together to enjoy a spread of Uighur food, which has similar flavours to Chinese food, at least twice a month.
Rafiqa says she likes the dumplings, but not the noodles. “I cannot eat laghman [long noodles],” she explains. “I am from the Middle East. I like grilled meat and rice and bread.”
Close by, outside the home of another Syrian family, three young girls are playing with a Uighur boy on a makeshift swing attached to a tree.
Sara, the girls’ 55-year-old grandmother, is sitting on a broken sofa outside the house where she now lives with her youngest son and his family.
“I have lost my elder son and seven grandchildren all together when a building collapsed during the war in Aleppo,” she explains.
In Syria, she had a good life and a large family, she says. Both her sons had good jobs. Here, her surviving son works as a labourer and they receive help from NGOs, which pay their rent and provide basic amenities.
“How can I not be thankful for what I have right now?” she asks. “In Syria, where there is no certainty of life, no matter how wealthy you are, it does not give you peace.”
Sara explains that her daughter-in-law, who is in her 30s but did not want to give her name, and her three granddaughters often visit the neighbouring Uighur families.
“Our kids learn together. Play together,” she says. “Although I do not understand their language, we speak with the language of Islam. It lightens my heart to see our kids together.”
In Kayseri, a city that hosts about 5 percent of all the Syrian refugees in Turkey, there are other communities of refugees. But, for Sara, this neighbourhood is the best. “We are not being typecast here. They [Uighurs] and other locals do not look at us differently,” she says.
It is late in the day now and, back at Taufeeq’s home, as the sun is about to set and the temperature drops, Moaaz helps his father bring in all the scrap he has collected during the day. The elders are going to the mosque to offer evening prayers, and the children are returning to their homes with the promise of seeing each other at the football game the following day.