WASHINGTON - The story Nejmidin shared with Global Voices is that of countless Uyghur families. He was born in Kashgar, a predominantly Uyghur city in southern Xinjiang. His large family was prosperous and well-respected in the region. His grandfather, Raman Idris, was a businessman who specialized in chemical fertilizers and, and later, in property development. Nejmidin’s father, Mamutjan Raman, was also a wealthy businessman and owned an agricultural cooperative. Nejmidin family were observant Muslims who prayed five times a day and paid their yearly religious tax (zakat).

His grandfather made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Such practices had to be done quietly however, to avoid the ire of the Chinese authorities. Nejmidin remembers that in his school days, he and his fellow students were made to hold hands and pledge not to engage in religious ceremonies or practices, such as fasting and attending Friday prayers. Nonetheless, Uyghur families such as Nejmidin’s had some freedom to practice their faith quietly.

This changed suddenly and dramatically in late 2015. Nejmidin, who was already living abroad, received a tearful phone call from his mother, telling him his father had been accused of a “political crime” and sentenced to a year in prison in Aksu, a city in the south of Xinjiang. His younger brother, accused of a similar crime, had been sentenced to six months in prison in Kashgar.

His mother begged Nejmidin never to call home again, for their safety, since having family abroad could result in intensified surveillance and interrogation. Such traumatic situations are widely shared within the Uyghur diaspora: despite experiencing deep angst about the fate of those left behind, exiles fear that any attempt to communicate with them could put them in danger.

At the same time, Uyghurs living abroad face the hardship of making a living in foreign lands and struggling for their own status, and sometimes safety, given the pressure the Chinese government exerts on countries hosting Uyghur asylum seekers. This has been Nejmidin’s experience. Unable to contact his family directly, he received information from people who maintained discreet contact with the region.

In 2018, he learned that his grandfather had been accused of religious extremism and was detained in June 2016, around the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. According to a source from Kashgar his grandfather was rushed to hospital, shortly after detention, where he passed away. The source claimed that his grandfather had been severely beaten before his death. He was seventy years old.