Two men originally from China are among the 1 million refugees fleeing Ukraine into neighboring countries this week after Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24.
VOA chronicled the journeys of Ibrahim Abliz, a Uyghur, and Ersin Erkinuly, a Kazakh.
Abliz and Erkinuly were among thousands of Uyghurs and Kazakhs who fled China because of its “anti-terrorism” policy in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where rights groups and some Western countries accuse China of crimes against humanity and arbitrarily detaining more than 1 million people in internment camps in recent years.
Beijing denies the mistreatment as lies and fabrication and says China’s policy in Xinjiang is about fighting extremism and that the facilities are vocational training centers.
Abliz and Erkinuly each found his way to Ukraine and had lived there for several years until everything changed on the day Russian troops entered Ukraine.
Ibrahim Abliz’s story
Abliz, a 31-year-old father, has lived with his toddler son in Ukraine since 2018, with the hope of reuniting with his wife, who has been living in Germany.
Abliz is no stranger to a nomadic life. He said he left China in 2013 and ever since had been looking for a safe place to live, away from China’s reach.
“I first spent almost one and half years in Pakistan and later safely arrived in Turkey where I studied and worked,” Abliz told VOA.
In 2016, he met and married a Uyghur woman living in Turkey who was also originally from China.
Two years later, Abliz lost hope of getting Turkish citizenship. He decided to leave Turkey for Europe in pursuit of a safer country where he could raise his family.
Many Uyghurs in Turkey live in constant fear of being sent back to China. In recent months, Turkey has rejected some Uyghur applications for citizenship citing “national security” and “public order.” Uyghurs see this as an attempt by China to persecute them outside its borders.
“In November 2018, my pregnant wife was able to fly to Germany from Ukraine and seek asylum,” Abliz said.
His 11-month-old son was not allowed to leave Ukraine because the boy had a Turkish ID. Abliz had no choice but to stay behind with his child.
“I had to be with my son in Ukraine and find a way to reunite with my wife,” Abliz said.
After Ukraine denied applications for refugee status for Abliz and his son, he tried to cross the border three times before the war broke out.
“I had to run away from Ukraine after my application was denied,” Abliz said. “But each time we were handed over to Ukraine from neighboring countries like Poland and Slovakia.”
Abliz said over the past three years he and his son have spent four months in detention in a Ukraine facility and two months in a refugee camp because of crossing borders to other countries without permits.
“In November 2021, my application for refugee status was approved thanks to Ukrainian authorities,” Abliz said.
On March 1, Abliz and his son were able to cross the border to Poland. They were reunited with his wife and other son, now 3 years old, who came from Germany to meet them.
“I am so happy that my son and I have met my wife and my second son I had never seen in person,” Abliz said.
Abliz said he is applying for entry into Germany because he is eligible to get a family reunification visa.
Ersin Erkinuly’s story
Erkinuly, a 25-year-old Kazakh refugee from China, arrived in Ukraine from Turkey in 2020. He too applied for refugee status but did not get it.
“I fled China to Kazakhstan in late 2019 after I had witnessed some people around me disappeared into internment camps,” Erkinuly told VOA.
But in Kazakhstan, according to Erkinuly, he didn’t feel safe and worried about possible deportation to China.
“Kazakhstan has very close relation with China, and I felt insecure and decided to leave for Turkey,” Erkinuly said.
Erkinuly was still not able to secure refugee status in Turkey, so he decided to go to Europe.
“I came to Ukraine and lost my passport and faced deportation to China,” Erkinuly told VOA. “I pleaded on the social media, and after Ukraine got pressured by democratic countries like the U.S. government, the authorities didn’t (deport) me.”
When the fighting started, Erkinuly left Kyiv and traveled for days. He reached the Polish border and was able to cross on March 3.
“I now feel that I am free,” Erkinuly told VOA from Poland. “They gave me a document which states I am allowed to remain in Poland until May.”
What happens after May is still uncertain. Erkinuly said he’s reached out to human rights group and the U.S. for help, as his search for a permanent safe haven continues.