The last time Samira Imin had contact with her father was April of 2017. It was her father’s birthday. The two exchanged pictures and messages on the Chinese social messaging service WeChat.
Weeks later, her father disappeared. He became one of over a million ethnic Uyghurs to be detained in so-called “re-education camps” in far western China.
Today, the 27-year-old Imin is using social media to bring attention to her father’s case -- and the situation of others like him.
The Uyghurs are a Turkic ethnic group. Most Uyghurs are Muslim. The language they speak is related to Turkish and other Central Asian languages.
About 12 million Uyghurs live in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Since early 2017, rights groups and other experts estimate that over 1 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities have been detained in camps across the area.
China’s government has said Xinjiang faces a threat from Islamist militants and separatists. Officials have said they are seeking to end extremism and violence in the area through education.
Former camp detainees have said they were forced to reject their way of life, religion and native language. They also describe abusive treatment and extremely poor conditions inside the camps.
Samira Imin’s father, Iminjan Seydin, was a full-time professor of Chinese history at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute before his disappearance. The 54-year-old lived in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, with his family.
Imin describes her father as “a very liberal and advanced thinker.” He is not someone who should be a target for “re-education,” she added.
After more than two years in one of the camps, Imin’s father was sentenced to 15 years in prison on charges of inciting extremism. He was punished for having published an Arabic language learning book back in 2014.
Imin says her father received government permission before the book’s publication.
The same year that her father’s book was published, Imin came to the United States. She studied biology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
During most of her time as a student in the U.S., she kept in touch with her family mostly through WeChat. That became much more difficult, however, after 2017.
Imin completed her studies in 2018. She told VOA she was “heartbroken” not to have her family there in Massachusetts to celebrate the event with her. By then, the Chinese government had taken away her parents’ passports, as it had done for thousands of other Uyghurs.
After graduation, Imin began working as a medical professional at the teaching hospital of Harvard University.
Life in Xinjiang
Growing up in Urumqi, Imin was educated in the Chinese language. When she was young, Uyghur parents could choose whether to send their children to majority-Chinese or majority-Uyghur classrooms.
“Sending me to Chinese school instead of Uyghur...was my parents’ choice in the hope of making me well-rounded person in a society where Chinese population (was growing) exponentially,” Imin told VOA.
After Imin began attending college in eastern China, her father urged her to study medicine in the United States.
Iminjan Seydin spent his birthday in April 2017 doing required work in a rural part of Xinjiang. He was expected to return to his home and permanent workplace in Urumqi that summer.
But in May, Chinese officials detained him. His detention came as part of an operation against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
Imin asked her family for answers.
“They just said, ‘the rural work program had been extended for another three years.’”
At first, she believed family members. She trusted them, and she trusted her country. “I kept believing, she said, and then I was busy with my school.”
Months passed, and there was still no news from her father. She was no longer able to safely ask her mother or younger brother about her father because of security concerns.
The Chinese government closely controls all internet use in Xinjiang. Uyghurs who have not been put in one of the camps still face government extreme surveillance. They have little contact with the outside world.
Social media activism
Internationally, Uyghur activists have been successful at using social media to speak up for their people. A series of videos on TikTok by an American teenager went viral last November. They condemned China’s policy against the Uighurs. The videos, which were created to look like makeup lessons, have been played millions of times. TikTok, a Chinese-owned social network, temporarily blocked the teenager’s account. Her account was later restored.
Late last year, Samira Imin heard from a friend living in Beijing that her father had received a 15-year prison sentence. Since then, Imin has joined hundreds of other Uyghur activists in being outspoken online about their people’s situation in China. She talks with members of the media in hopes of pressuring Chinese officials to release her father.
She said, “I wasn't too active until I found out specifically about my father's case.” Now, she says, “I'm active on social media to ask for freedom and justice for my father.”
I’m Jonathan Evans.
And I'm Ashley Thompson.
Asim Kashgarian reported this story for VOA News. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English, with additional materials. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
graduation - n. the act of receiving a diploma or degree from a school, college, or university : the act of graduating
surveillance - n.the act of carefully watching someone or something especially in order to prevent or detect a crime
teenager - n. someone who is between 13 and 19 years old
lesson - n. an activity that you do in order to learn something
restore - v. to give back (someone or something that was lost or taken) : to return (someone or something)