I met Hamdi Kosar in the fall of 2017 while working for the West Central Tribune. She was shy — understandably so since many people are when there’s a camera involved — but she was quick to open up. Something about her struck me. Maybe it was her passion, our similarity in age, or something greater pulling us together.
Several weeks after meeting each other, I called her up and asked an objectively strange question, “Would I be able to photograph your everyday life?”
After more explanation, she quickly agreed. Kosar, a Willmar resident and Somali refugee, understood what this meant. It was an opportunity to share her story and shed light on issues the Willmar refugee community faces. After photographing her for several months, the story was published in the West Central on April 8, 2018, titled, “A rural refugee: Hamdi Kosar shares her story.”
Though I kept feeling the story wasn't complete — something was missing. That’s why this August, Kosar and I, along with Jessica Rohloff, Kosar’s friend and colleague, decided to travel to Kenya and visit the refugee camp where Kosar was born.
These photographs turned into what is now the Rural Refugee Project, a local initiative that uses documentary photography to share the experiences of the Willmar refugee community, with support from Willmar Lakes Area Vision 2040, Southwest Minnesota Arts Council, Willmar Rotary Club and individual donors.
We traveled to Nairobi and then to Dadaab to visit the Dagahaley Refugee Camp, and arranged to take a United Nations Humanitarian Air Services flight to get there. Kosar, Rohloff and I boarded a small 40-person plane consisting of UN staff members, wealthy donors, members of the media, and even a famous Somali musician.
After a turbulent ride, we landed on a red sandy plain. From there, we went to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees headquarters where we stayed for two nights.
The headquarters compound was beautiful — much more beautiful than I had imagined. There was greenery everywhere and fresh flowers and water jugs throughout the space. There was even a tennis court. Our rooms had air conditioning, a television and a personal bathroom.
We spent our nights in a beautiful oasis, while several miles down the road there are thousands of people with limited access to water.
Abdi Maalim, who helped us navigate the camps, said something that stuck with me. “It’s not necessarily a humanitarian crisis — it’s a humanitarian industry,” he said. “Everything’s an industry.”
To abide by the UNHCR regulations, we hired security vehicles and had to move quickly. Word travels fast and threats of Al-Shabaab, a terrorist group mainly based in Somalia, causes major concerns for those in the camps.
But it wasn’t the security issues that mainly concerned me.
While navigating the camp, there was an overwhelming sense of stagnancy. The living quarters were people’s homes. They were not transitory or temporary — they were permanent. Within an hour of being in Dagahaley, we met Ruqia Osman by chance. Osman has lived in the camp for around 30 years and went through the resettlement process with Kosar’s family nearly a decade ago. Her daughter, who she hasn’t seen in 10 years, was resettled to the U.S. and now lives in Willmar.
“I talk to myself because I miss her so much,” Osman said to Kosar. “Seeing you I am able to see my daughter.”
This moment sent chills down my spine. It was by chance that I was able to connect with Kosar. It was by chance that we were able to go on this trip. It was by chance that we were able to meet Ruqia Osman. It was all up to something greater than us.
“Inshallah,” Kosar kept on saying.
It’s an Arabic expression that means “God willing” or “if God wills it” commonly used by Muslims. It was said throughout the course of the trip. After parting ways, in text messages, when making plans, “Inshallah.”
This experience has been a hard one to describe. As humans, we can hold so many emotions at once — joy, pain, sorrow, excitement, anger, optimism. It’s hard to come up with the right words when someone asks, “How was the trip?” We tend to wrap things in a bow and neatly tuck them away in categories. It’s just easier that way. But with Inshallah, you are given the grace to be human.
The Rural Refugee Project will be holding a public presentation about our journey Oct. 22 at 6:30 p.m. at the Willmar Public Library. For more information and updates, visit the Rural Refugee Project Facebook and Instagram page @RuralRefugeeProject.