Ten-year-old Nurzat climbs out of his bunk bed, tiptoes across the room that he shares with three other boys and opens his locker.
It holds his most prized possession: a framed photograph of his father.
His dad has a thick mustache and wears a gray polo shirt and thick glasses. Nurzat, a wispy boy with huge brown eyes and a hushed voice, says he can almost hear him laughing.
“I miss you so much,” he tells the photo. “When are you coming?”
Nurzat hasn’t talked to his family in three years, ever since Chinese police arrested his father in western China’s Xinjiang region.
As Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, Nurzat’s family has faced abuse, imprisonment and discrimination in China for years. More than 1 million Uighurs have been forced into so-called reeducation camps since 2017. Human rights groups say they’re targeted for their religion. At these camps, Uighurs are pressured to renounce Islam and pledge allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party.
In the past six years, thousands have sought refuge and settled in Turkey, according to Uighur leaders there. Among them are hundreds of children — estimates vary between 350 and 700 — whose parents have disappeared in China.
Most of the children arrived in Turkey with at least one parent but have ended up on their own. The parents were arrested after returning to China to try to get the rest of the family out or to close up businesses. A handful of children, like Nurzat, were sent out of China with family acquaintances.
Without their parents, many of the children ended up living with other Uighur families or distant relatives, who struggled to support them. Some of the children, including Nurzat, were moved in late 2017 by Uighur community leaders in Turkey to a sand-colored boarding school called Oku Uygur (Read Uighur) in the sunny seaside town of Selimpasa, west of Istanbul.
Nurzat has heard grown-ups refer to his school as an orphanage.
“I’m not an orphan,” he says.