3 Questions with... Ibrahim Hirsi of MinnPost
Editor’s note: Students in ThreeSixty Journalism’s Rookie Journalist Camp in July spent time writing a Q-and-A story about guest speakers who visited camp. Check ThreeSixtyJournalism.org for more of these profiles, as well as student blogs.
In his tasteful outfit, elegant posture and overall sense of ease, he looks as if he was born to be a journalist.
Hirsi, a staff writer for MinnPost, was born in Somalia but spent the majority of his childhood in Kenya. He had only just completed a portion of his high school education before his family moved to Minneapolis. In 2006, Hirsi attended a ThreeSixty Journalism summer camp at the University of St. Thomas, which Hirsi says sparked his interest in telling stories and writing. Hirsi furthered his education by attending the University of Minnesota.
When Hirsi was a sophomore in college, he acquired a research internship with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to travel to Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, in Nairobi, Kenya. Within the refugee camp, Hirsi helped establish a refugee-written publication called “The Refugee,” which has now evolved into a magazine.
After graduation, Hirsi freelanced for Politico, Truthout, the St. Cloud Times and MinnPost before being hired full-time at MinnPost.
Q: You state in your bio that the newsletter that you created in Dadaab refugee camp, “The Refugee,” is the legacy that you are proudest of. Could you elaborate as to why you feel this way?
Hirsi: I went back to Kenya in 2010 to do an internship. I was a sophomore in college at the time. I went to Dadaab, it’s the world’s largest refugee camp. I did a lot of things there, but one of the things I did there was to train people. I think I recruited about seven people in the camp who were passionate about writing, who were passionate about reporting. The same thing that you do right now, that’s what we did. We talked about newsgathering, we talked about reporting, we talked about, how do you find ideas?
At the end of that workshop, we did the same thing that you’re doing here (at ThreeSixty Journalism camp) – everybody had to have a story by the end of the week of training. So I collected all of those stories, put it together and we created a small newspaper.
So, this is the world's largest refugee camp at the time. A lot of good things and bad things were happening, but nobody was telling those stories. Dadaab is as large as the population of Minneapolis, about 300,000 people, believe it or not. But they don’t even have a single news organization. But here in Minneapolis, how many do we have? So many.
And why we do journalism is to hold leaders accountable, right? Because if you go to many other countries, especially in the developing world, you will find some countries that are corrupted, everybody’s doing anything they want, leaders are maybe assassinating other people, they are taking people’s money away. Why are they doing that? They know that nobody is holding them accountable. But here in Minneapolis, these people are not doing that, because if they do that, they will end up on the front page of the Star Tribune or MinnPost. They’re fearful because they know that they will be accountable for what they do. If it’s a good thing, we write about it. If it’s a bad thing, we write about it, too.
… But in that camp, their official is from the U.N., their official is from Kenya, their official is from Somalia, and there are also a lot of refugees and they do a lot of things. There is a lot of money in that camp in terms of supporting people. The U.N. gave millions of dollars to support these people, but at the same time, nobody really knows what’s happening. We started that news organization so that, number one, they start telling their own stories. And number two, so that it could hold the people who are leading that camp accountable. That is why it was very important to me. Until now, I have never done anything better than starting the news organization. It’s still going on, it’s getting bigger. It’s now turned into a magazine.
Q: How did journalism change the way you see the world?
Hirsi: It makes you more curious. That story (I wrote for MinnPost about Somalis being loyal to Toyota Camrys, T-Mobile and Wells Fargo), people knew for 20 years that Somalis love Toyota Camrys and T-Mobile and everything, but people just saw it and they moved on. But as a journalist you have to stop and say, “Why? Why do they like this? Why not the Honda Accord? Why not other phone carriers?”
You’re more curious I think than other people, and also because I get to write almost everything, it kind of makes you a better person. Sometimes you write about a guy who used to fly an airplane to go to medical school. I interviewed that guy in St. Cloud. This guy was a medical student, he lived in Minnesota, but whenever he wants to go to class, he used to fly to Florida and New York for med school. ... I mean it wasn’t every single class, but it was meetings. He took an airplane to those places for a meeting, but at the same time you do a story about a homeless guy who doesn’t know where to sleep tonight, or who doesn’t have anything to eat for dinner. So you get to see all those things and it just makes you a better person, and it kind of changes the way you see things.
Q: Can you describe a time in the ThreeSixty program when you felt challenged?
Hirsi: Yes, yes, yes. I still remember this. I came to this country in 2005. I was from Kenya. Of course, I knew English. I had done some writing, it wasn't journalism, but I had done some writing. But I wasn't confident, and I got accepted to this program in about a year. So I came to this country in 2005; in 2006 I was sitting here, learning how to write a news report. I wasn’t confident. I thought the people who were in the classroom with me, born here and grew up here, I thought they were better than me. I thought I couldn't talk the way they talked. I had an accent, I still do, and I thought that was the bad thing, to have an accent.
So we had to do a story. I did a story about a guy who was in high school who was turning 21. But because he was turning 21, he had to be kicked out of the school. He couldn't graduate. In Minnesota we have a law that if you're over 21, you can't be in high school, you have to go find GED programs, because this system was set for people who were born here, and people will say, “Well if somebody is 21, they have to get done with school.” But in reality we have a lot of people coming here when they’re 19 years old, 18 years old, and they still need this high school education. So that guy came to this country when he was I think 19, and three years later he wasn't done with high school and he wanted to finish high school and go to college and he was passionate about this, but because of the law that we have here he had to be kicked out of the school. That was my story while I was here.
Of course I talked to him. That was not that bad. But then I also had to talk to some lawmakers, people who helped set up this law, and say, “Hey, are you aware that hundreds of people are being kicked out of high schools just because they turn 21?” But I never talked to anybody who was older than 15 at the time, and it was just hard for me to. I was like, this lawmaker, who has probably been doing this for 30 years, 20 years, I felt like – number one, I thought I was too young, too dumb to be able to talk to an American, white lawmaker in the capitol.
Lynda McDonnell (the former executive director of ThreeSixty) was working with me at the time, and I said, “I’ll take notes. Can you call him for me, and do the interview?” Because I just didn't have that confidence. I didn't have the confidence to dial the number and ask questions because I thought I wasn't good enough to do that.
So that was a tough time for me. It was more of a cultural – it was more that I was new to the country. And confidence is very important. When you are a new reporter, you're not as confident when you were my age. So a lot of, “Am I asking the right questions? Am I loud enough to ask this question? Can he hear me? Can he understand what I’m saying? Can he understand my accent? Is it a problem?” That was challenging for me.
This transcript has been edited for length and content.