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From Willmar to Kenya: A rural refugee returns to her roots

Editor’s note: This is the first story of a two-part series "From Willmar to Kenya."

Hamdi Kosar climbs a tree “just like I used to do” Aug. 19 at the Dagahaley Refugee Camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune
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Nearly nine years ago, Hamdi Kosar and her family resettled more than 8,000 miles away from their home in Kenya to the U.S.

In August, Kosar, a current Willmar resident and Somali refugee, returned to Kenya in an effort to share her experience as a refugee with her community. It was organized through the Rural Refugee Project.

Kosar, 21, has never set foot in Somalia, but the country has shaped her life in many ways. She was born at the Dagahaley Refugee Camp, one of four refugee camps based in Dadaab, Kenya. The refugee complex houses more than 200,000 Somali refugees seeking asylum from their home country's political and economic instability.


“I’m nervous and very excited,” Kosar said before leaving. “I don’t know what to expect. I’m going back home.”

Kosar traveled with her friend and colleague Jessica Rohloff, who was born and raised in Kandiyohi County. As community organizers, the pair work together to empower Somali residents in the Willmar area. They visited Nairobi and the Dagahaley Refugee Camp in Dadaab, including Kosar’s primary school and the block where she was born.

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Kosar, Rohloff and this photojournalist traveled to Kenya via the Rural Refugee Project with the support of Willmar Lakes Area Vision 2040, Southwest Minnesota Arts Council, Willmar Rotary Club, and individual donors. The Rural Refugee Project is a local initiative that uses documentary photography to share the experiences of the Willmar refugee community.

Being in the same place — now almost a decade later — brought up a series of emotions for Kosar. Things were different than how she remembered, but also the same. She said she is very grateful to be resettled, because the majority of refugees in the camp did not have the chance to create a life beyond the camp.

“It brings back a lot of memories and it’s hard for me to see this,” Kosar said while at the camp. “You see people’s mindsets about they just want to get out. That was the same mindset my parents had. They were just waiting to get out.”

In 2017, the United States admitted 53,691 refugees, which was a 37% decrease from the previous year, largely due to additional security vetting procedures, according to the March 2019 Annual Flow Report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Somali refugees included 11% of that total number.

“I see the refugees in the camp and I had the same experience as them, but I can’t say that I’ve always walked in their shoes. God has given me a different blessing, being able to come to the U.S., while they are still here in the camps,” Kosar said. “Everyone deserves an opportunity, an education and a way out. I am still that person in the camp, I am no better because I came back from America.”

Minnesota is home to the largest population of Somali refugees in the U.S., according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center. While many of these refugees reside in the larger Twin Cities metro area, others have moved to rural cities and towns throughout the state, including Willmar.

Kosar uses her experiences to voice what it is like to live as a refugee in rural Minnesota. The adversity Kosar faced, she said, drove her to share her story and advocate for fellow immigrants and refugees in Minnesota.

“This trip confirmed why I’m an advocate and why I keep sharing my story. It gave me a sense of motivation to keep showing others the reality of the situation,” Kosar said.

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She urges others to look at refugees and immigrants as more than a statistic on a chart and, instead, as humans.

“Think about if you were trapped in a prison and can’t get out. Think about what you would do if your own children were being raped by the police and you have no one to call. You can't make judgments about someone unless you've lived what they’ve lived,” Kosar said. “The conversation needs to change. We should be welcoming these people with open arms.”


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Hamdi Kosar reads on the flight from Doha, Qatar to Nairobi, Kenya Aug. 14 at the Hamad International Airport. “I’m really excited and it'll bring back a lot of memories,” Kosar said about returning to Kenya. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune


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Hamdi Kosar pauses while walking through the streets of Eastleigh, a predominantly Muslim and Somali neighborhood in Nairobi, Aug. 16. Many Somali refugees shop here while they are in the resettlement centers before they head elsewhere to seek asylum. This neighborhood was particularly hard for Kosar to see. “It’s very emotional for me to see this,” she said. “My religion teaches us to care for the poor and people don’t even stop to talk to them. I want to help people, but I also feel helpless because I can’t give them enough.” Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune


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Hamdi Kosar writes in her journal about her journey before boarding the final flight from Doha, Qatar to Nairobi Aug. 14 at the Hamad International Airport. “I’m really excited and it'll bring back a lot of memories,” Kosar said about returning to Kenya. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

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Hamdi Kosar looks at shoes at a market in the Eastleigh neighborhood Aug. 16 in Nairobi. The neighborhood is predominantly inhabited by Somali muslims and many refugees shop here while they are in the resettlement centers before they head elsewhere to seek asylum. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune


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Jessica Rohloff, left, and Hamdi Kosar walk through the A1 Block Aug. 19 where Kosar was born at the Dagahaley Refugee Camp in Dadaab, Kenya. The pair visited Kosar’s former home that now houses a new family. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune


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Ruqia Osman embraces Hamdi Kosar Aug. 19 at the Dagahaley Refugee Camp in Dadaab, Kenya. 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.” Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

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Jessica Rohloff, left, Ruqia Osman and Hamdi Kosar sit in the Dagahaley Transit Centre where many refugees wait to be interviewed for the resettlement process Aug. 9 at the Dagahaley Refugee Camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Osman, a Somali refugee and current resident, has been in the camp for around 30 years and went through the resettlement process with Kosar’s family nearly a decade ago. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

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Hamdi Kosar stands up after sitting at a desk in her former elementary school, Juba Primary School, Aug. 19 at the Dagahaley Refugee Camp in Dadaab, Kenya. The school offers many forms of enrichment, including the debate team which she was a part of during her time there. Kosar’s father was also a school teacher and taught at Juba Primary School. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune

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Hamdi Kosar speaks with Ruqia Osman and her family in her home Aug. 19 at the Dagahaley Refugee Camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Osman speaks about the food provided for the refugees at the camp, pictured below, and how the camp has changed over the past several years. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune


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Hamdi Kosar looks out the window while driving through the marketplace Aug. 19 at the Dagahaley Refugee Camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Many refugees have their own business and sell goods at the market place within the camp. “It brings back memories,” Kosar said. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune


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Hamdi Kosar takes a selfie with her phone in front of the Dagahaley Transit Centre sign Aug. 19 at the Dagahaley Refugee Camp in Dadaab, Kenya. Kosar, 21, was born at the refugee camp and lived there throughout most of her pre-teen years. This is the first time she has been back to the camp in almost a decade. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune


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Khalid Ahmed, Kosar's cousin, helps lift a suitcase up the steps while Hamdi Kosar and Jessica Rohloff follow Aug. 23 in Nairobi. Kosar had met Ahmed just several days before and has many family members that she has never met after being resettled to the U.S. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune


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Hamdi Kosar looks out at the city skyline Aug. 16 in Nairobi. Kosar never got the chance to explore the city even though she spent several months at a resettlement center based there to prepare them to move to the U.S. Erica Dischino / West Central Tribune


Erica Dischino is a photojournalist for the West Central Tribune and Forum News Service. She grew up in northern New Jersey and has lived in the Midwest since 2017. She enjoys photographing the stories of west central Minnesota from county fairs, parades and pandemics. Feel free to contact her at edischino@wctrib.com or 320-894-8865 with your best photo ideas.
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