WASHINGTON – About five years ago, a doctor and medical researcher named Imamjan Ibrahim left Boston for Xinjiang, China, to visit his parents. He never returned. Now, friends and acquaintances fear the 35-year-old Ibrahim has been swept up in China’s massive detention and imprisonment campaign targeting the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities who populate the country’s western region.
“It’s been a long four years as I’m searching for my friend,” said Maya Mitalipova, a Uyghur-American and biomedical researcher with MIT’s Whitehead Institute. Mitalipova’s quest to find Ibrahim echoes those of other Uyghur-Americans and advocates fighting to bring attention to what the U.S. government now says is a “genocide” by the Chinese government against the Uyghurs.
Mitalipova, who immigrated to the U.S. from Kazakhstan, said she befriended Ibrahim soon after he came to Boston in 2010 and encouraged him as he sought a research fellowship at the city’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. She spoke to USA TODAY via phone and email.
“I became his older sister,” she said. “After long several years of study and preparing and passing medical exams in the U.S., Imamjan finally got (the) fellowship … It was his dream.” But he needed to get an H1B work visa, something foreigners can only do at a U.S. consulate abroad. So he traveled to Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang and once a major trading stop on the ancient Silk Road.
Before he could return to the U.S., Mitalipova says Chinese officials confiscated his passport. Her account could not be independently confirmed by USA TODAY. Because of China’s aggressive limits on information about the Uyghurs, such accounts about friends or relatives who have disappeared or been imprisoned are difficult to verify. Uyghurs in China risk retribution from government authorities if they speak out.