Graduate student co-founds charitable trust for Uyghur diaspora in Turkey

Cornell Masters of Public Administration student Rizwangul NurMuhammad co-founded Empower Communities Charitable Trust, which provides funding and training to meet the employment and education needs of the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey. This trust was established in 2021 following a rigorous field evaluation in August through the Serve In Place fund of the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement and a summer grant from the Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.

NurMuhammad, a Fulbright scholar, is a vocal advocate for Uyghur rights, raising awareness of her brother’s indefinite detention by the Chinese government.

The non-profit organization, registered in New Zealand, provides assistance to Uyghur migrants and refugees in Turkey, in the form of training grants, childcare grants and small business loans.

Uyghurs face challenges during resettlement and integration, including language barriers and lack of access to a social and financial network, NurMuhammad said, after conducting a community assessment before launching the initiatives.

“Some husbands of Uyghur women have not been able to return to Turkey from China, and [the women] became the sole breadwinner in their household,” NurMuhammad said.

Since many women are skilled in sewing, cooking and cosmetics, running small businesses can keep some women afloat.

“A mother can sew and make clothes at home while taking care of the children,” NurMuhammad said. “However, they cannot afford to buy a sewing machine. This is where our help goes.

According to NurMuhammad, some Uyghur women want to learn skills that will help them find jobs, but they cannot afford tuition fees and childcare costs. In these situations, a combination of Skills Training Grants and Child Care Support Grants can be provided through the Trust.

“If you remove these barriers – however small – we can empower [Uyghur women] to pursue what they would like to do and support themselves financially,” NurMuhammad said.

According to NurMuhammad, the trust has already yielded positive results: ten of the women graduating from the short-term training courses are expected to be employed.

NurMuhammad also noted that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting Uighur communities.

“Due to the COVID lockdown, businesses have been significantly impacted, [and] some closed,” NurMuhammad said. “For Uyghurs who have lost financial ties to their home country, this is a huge problem.”

NurMuhammad, as a student in a public administration program, wants to identify the root of the problems and propose solutions.

“We start with situations that are urgent and close to us,” NurMuhammad said.

“I have seen Uyghurs struggling with little support, yet showing resilience – some families cannot afford to have good meals, but they are still willing to pay for their children’s education,” NurMuhammad said.

The trust’s long-term goal is to empower Uyghur communities, which is why initiatives such as interest-free loans for businesses are part of the trust’s mission. NurMuhammad compared the initiative’s motto to the saying “If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for life.

“They would like to become financially independent so they don’t have to depend on humanitarian aid. They would like to work and earn an income themselves,” NurMuhammad said. “Right now, a packet of rice or oil helps temporarily, but in the long run, how do you get out of this poverty? How do young people imagine their future?

NurMuhammad credited Cornell’s MPA program with some of the Trust’s success so far.

“It not only provided me with professional knowledge, but also the courage and confidence to take on challenges like these,” NurMuhammad said. “My teachers were very helpful.”

According to her, the most notable challenges during the development of the project were its time-consuming nature requiring attention to detail.

“From the creation of the NGO, to its successful registration, to designing the projects from scratch, combining academic literature with data from the community needs assessment and combining our professional knowledge and resources , such an initiative takes time,” NurMuhammad said. “We also have to look at durability, credibility, sustainability, [and] how to measure results — sometimes I didn’t have a weekend, but it was worth it.

NurMuhammad said the Trust had provided business loans to four small businesses from April and planned to provide a further 23 training grants and 27 childcare support grants.

In the future, this trust plans to provide skills-based training, particularly in designing new businesses and writing business plans.

Sharon P. Juarez