Cornell Masters of Public Administration student Rizwangul NurMuhammad grad, co-founded Empower Communities Charitable Trust which provides funds and training to address the employment and educational needs of the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey. This trust was established in 2021 following a rigorous on-ground assessment in August through the Serve In Place Fund from David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement and a summer grant from Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.
The not-for-profit organization, which is registered in New Zealand, provides assistance to Uyghur migrants and refugees in Turkey, in the form of training grants, childcare support grants and loans to small businesses.
The Uyghurs face challenges during resettling and integration, including language barriers and lack of access to a social and financial network, NurMuhammad said, having conducted a community assessment prior to launching the initiatives.
“Some Uyghur womens’ husbands haven’t been able to return to Turkey from China, and [the women] became the sole breadwinner of their household,” NurMuhammad said.
Because 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 children,” NurMuhammad said. “Yet they do not have the money to buy a sewing machine. That is where our help goes.”
According to NurMuhammad, some Uyghur women want to learn skills that will help them to find work, but they cannot afford to pay course fees and childcare costs. For those situations, a combination of skill-oriented training grants and childcare support grants can be provided through the Trust.
“If you remove these barriers — even if they are small — we can empower [Uyghur women] to pursue what they’d like to do and support themselves financially,” NurMuhammad said.
According to NurMuhammad, the trust has already yielded positive results: ten of the women who graduated from the short-term training courses are set to be employed.
NurMuhammad also noted that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting Uyghur communities.
“Because of the COVID lockdown, businesses have been impacted significantly, [and] some have closed,” NurMuhammad said. “For Uyghurs who have lost financial connections with home, this is a huge problem.”
NurMuhammad, as a student in a public administration program, is interested in identifying the root of the problems and providing solutions.
“We start with situations that are urgent and close to us,” NurMuhammad said.
“I have seen Uyghurs are struggling with little support, and yet showing resilience – some families cannot afford to have proper meals, but they are still willing to pay for their children’s education,” NurMuhammad said.
The long-term aim of the trust is to empower Uyghur communities to stand on their own feet, which is why initiatives including interest-free loans for businesses are part of the trust’s mission. NurMuhammad likened 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 a lifetime.’
“They’d like to get financially independent so they don’t have to rely on humanitarian aid. They’d like to work and gain income themselves,” NurMuhammad said. “Right now, a package of rice or oil helps temporarily, but in the long term how do you get out of this poverty? How do the youth imagine their future?”
NurMuhammad credited the MPA program at Cornell to part of the success of the Trust so far.
“It not only provided me with professional knowledge but also the courage and confidence for addressing challenges like these,” NurMuhammad said. “My professors have been very helpful.”
According to her, the most notable challenges during the development of the project have been its time-consuming nature requiring attention to detail.
“From setting up the NGO, registering it successfully, designing the projects from scratch, combining academic literature with data from community needs assessment, and combining our professional knowledge and resources, such an initiative takes time,” NurMuhammad said. “We need to also look at sustainability, credibility, durability, [and] how to measure results — sometimes I didn’t have any weekend, but it is worthwhile.”
NurMuhammad said the Trust has provided business loans for four small businesses starting in April, and expects to provide another 23 training grants and 27 childcare support grants.
Moving forward, this Trust is considering providing skill based training, especially in new venture design and business plan writing.