Somali refugee gives back

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 18, 2010 - 7:24 PM

Young journalist Ibrahim Hirsi at the Dadaab refugee camp last summer.

Photo: Provided by Ibrahim Hirsi

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When applying to a competitive youth journalism program five years ago, Ibrahim Hirsi promised to use his knowledge to start a newspaper at Wellstone International High School and to one day write articles for his community and college newspapers. Hirsi did all those things.

What he didn't promise, because he couldn't imagine it, was that he would travel more than 8,000 miles to the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya last summer to introduce seven young men to the power of the press.

The result is "The Refugee," an eight-page English-language newsletter produced in the camp that is an understated marvel, thanks largely to Hirsi, an understated marvel himself.

Hirsi, 23, is a Somali refugee-turned-college-student who emigrated to Minnesota with his family in 2005. He's no stranger to the plight of those he mentored.

As civil war erupted in Somalia in 1991, Hirsi's family fled to Kenya and Hirsi to a childhood life as a refugee that he describes as "horrible."

"We were not Kenyans," he said. "If you're from Somalia, you are always a refugee. They treat you as less-than-human.

"Refugee. That was the name I was first called, before they even called me by my name."

As his family waited desperately to leave (their move to the United States delayed several times after 9/11), Hirsi bought used books -- English, math, biology, chemistry -- and studied on his own at every opportunity.

When he finally arrived in the Twin Cities at age 18, he was placed in the ninth grade. Instead of being embarrassed, he got busy learning. His teachers took notice and, in 2006, one of them suggested he apply for the ThreeSixty journalism program (www.threesixtyjournalism.org). The program, based at the University of St. Thomas, trains students ages 13 to 21 in the practice and principles of journalism. Hirsi was chosen and, as promised, started a high school newspaper and wrote for the Wedge neighborhood newspaper in Minneapolis.

He completed high school in two years and enrolled at the University of Minnesota, studying journalism and working for the Minnesota Daily, where he covered Greek life and neighborhood housing. Then young Somali men from Minneapolis began a mysterious return to their home country to fight. Hirsi courageously put the principles he'd learned through ThreeSixty to work.

"It was a really tough story to cover," Hirsi said, noting that he received painfully personal criticism from some members of the Somali community who didn't want him wearing a reporter's hat.

"A lot of people thought that it would damage [the community's] dignity. I understand that. But, as a journalist, there are people who rely on my work. I thought I would know more about the community than any other person.

"I'm a journalist first, and I need to do what a journalist is expected to do."

Minnesota Public Radio named him a News Fellow in 2009. Earlier this year, Hirsi's greatest dream was realized. He returned to Dadaab as a summer intern and interpreter, assisting researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only one college student is selected nationally for the post each year. Through the CDC, Hirsi was introduced to filmmakers from FilmAid, a non-profit humanitarian organization, which triggered an idea. Hirsi recruited seven men, ages 22 to 27, living in the refugee camp and, for a full week, taught them journalism basics. What is a newspaper? What are its sections? Who does what? How is a story developed?

Some had never written in English. None had written a news article. Hirsi lent them his computer and scrounged for two more. Training was basic. "I was teaching them where the backspace was," he said.

But their storytelling instincts were sharp. One reported the horrific death of a 13-year-old Somali boy, believed to be killed by Sudanese. Another wrote about the controversy surrounding marrying off girls barely in their teens; another took on dangerous flooding. There were also a few uplifting tales, including a U.N. High Commission for Refugees job-training program for youth.

Once the pieces were written, Hirsi began editing, which, he said diplomatically, was time-consuming. "There were days when I didn't go out at all," he said. The first issue of the Refugee is being distributed throughout the camps as well as online. The second issue is in the works. Hirsi made sure of that by assigning each member of the fledgling reporting team a new role before he returned to Minnesota. Abdi Abdullahi, a former English teacher, is the new editor-in-chief.

"I am proud. I'm glad I started this project," said Hirsi, who will graduate with a journalism degree in May. "It's a way to give the refugees a way to tell their stories." And a way for him to give back.

"I wanted to sit down with them, to show them I care for them, am still a part of their lives. It was a way to say, 'I am one of you. I know how you feel.'"

A copy of the newsletter can be seen at www.hapinternational.org/pool/files/the-refugee-kenya.pdf. Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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