Reporter who fled Taliban now writes for fellow refugees in St. Paul – Twin Cities
It was 2 p.m. on a weekday when the Taliban’s national defense secretary entered the Kabul newspaper office of 8am.media with three armed guards, mincing no words: “If you write anything against us again, we’ll use the gun.”
Reporter and editor Hussain Ali Haidari recalled the tension in the room, and the fear in his chest, as his country’s new leadership exerted its influence against his newsroom. It wouldn’t be the last time that the Taliban — whose fundamentalist forces took over Afghanistan’s central government in August 2021 — made an appearance in the halls of the nation’s leading weekly print journal. The then-27-year-old newsman, a former radio reporter and presidential aide, soon realized his time at the paper, and in his country, was over.
“Many Afghan journalists were tortured by the Taliban. The Taliban controlled all things,” said Haidari, recalling how the press could publish “nothing against the Taliban, nothing about human rights or democracy.”
Like other journalists, Haidari fled Kabul with his wife Mozhgan and newborn son Bashar that November, soon landing with his young family at a military camp in New Jersey, and then in the western suburbs of the Twin Cities, far from home or any other relatives.
Dispatches from abroad
From his St. Louis Park apartment, Haidari — just a few years out of college — has helped keep 8am.media alive (better known in Afghanistan as the Hasht-e Subh Daily) by volunteering dispatches from abroad, as have its other workers-in-exile. The identities of reporters still based inside Afghanistan are kept anonymous for their safety.
Criticism of the Taliban continues even as the paper has gone fully online with most reporters remote. In fact, it’s grown, with news stories focusing on Taliban-inspired crackdowns against girls’ education, an uptick in youth suicide and the erosion of due process and other legal rights.
“The Taliban Leader’s Hypocrisy,” reads the title of a news piece. “The World Remains Silent in the Face of Afghan Women’s Suffering,” reads another.
Haidari also has turned his journalistic focus to the unfamiliar territory he now calls home. In addition to writing courtesy contributions for 8am.media, Haidari, who holds a journalism degree from Kabul University, publishes the weekly newsletter “New Home” for Afghan refugees across America.
Launched in November, the newsletter is written in both Pashto and Dari, the two most common languages of his home country. There’s hard news in New Home about government legislation impacting immigrants, such as the state’s recent “Driver’s Licenses for All” legislation, but also “how to” pieces about navigating everyday routines in the U.S., which were very different in Haidari’s homeland.
In Afghanistan, for instance, a doctor’s appointment could be booked at a public hospital on a same-day, walk-in basis, and medicines were free. American terms like urgent care, primary care and emergency room don’t translate well. He’s explained how to interpret air-quality alerts, who the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was and why King has his own federal holiday.
“We’re not just writing the news,” said Haidari, who is also an intake/outreach specialist at Emerge, a Minneapolis career and community development nonprofit that works with new immigrants. “We’re educating people how to start a new life in the United States, how to make a doctor’s appointment, how to take the bus.”
Births, weddings and low-wage jobs
He’s written up birth announcements, wedding announcements and other efforts to create a semblance of community among refugees who may have been housed in temporary accommodations together when they first arrived in America but have since scattered across the nation.
And he’s highlighted challenges — seven of the eight Afghans Haidari interviewed for another New Home piece had failed their driver’s license exam in the U.S., a red flag in his eyes that some instructions are being lost in translation.
Overall, he’s seen his countrymen struggle to find solid jobs and navigate a new language, culture and economy.
Haidari estimates there are 2,000 Afghans in Minnesota, and most arrived as refugees during the Taliban takeover in 2021. Elders in particular struggle to pick up English, even as their children adapt more quickly. There are plenty of jobs — a printing company in St. Louis Park employed some 50 Afghan refugees soon after they arrived in Minnesota — but not all are accessible.
“The big challenge is the language barrier,” Haidari said. “They find work, but they’re trying to find a better job. It’s too far from home, or the pay is low. … (Sometimes) the work is a little hard, physically.”
His own wife, who holds an undergraduate degree in economics and worked as a government social worker in Afghanistan, now works at a fast-food stand within the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.
The newsletter has helped Mahdi Surosh, 29, of Minneapolis, stay abreast of the obstacles his peers face, as well as community celebrations and everyday discussions.
“You’re trying to fit into the Minnesota community, and you don’t know a lot about the law and regulations in Minnesota, and you’re trying to learn,” said Surosh, a Fulbright scholar studying public policy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Surosh noted that most Afghans in Minnesota came from Afghanistan’s southeastern region, where the common language was Pashto, not English. “People have mental health issues adapting to their community or to their new environment, and they’re worried about their family and community back in Afghanistan,” he said.
Funding and direction from Sahan Journal
Haidari launched New Home with funding and direction from the Sahan Journal, an online news outlet based in downtown St. Paul that focuses primarily on English-language coverage of communities of color and immigrants in Minnesota. Aala Abdullahi, Sahan’s innovation director, has focused on new ways of connecting news media to Minnesota’s growing immigrant and refugee communities.
These days, Haidari’s newsroom is most likely to be the rooftop patio of the Wellworth Coworking space on Minnesota Street, where the Sahan Journal makes its offices.
In addition to about 360 followers on Facebook, New Home is produced as a series of PDFs distributed through links in SMS text messages, a media service offered by GroundSource, a company led by SouthwestVoices.news founder Andrew Haeg. The text service, which has 510 subscribers, is a kind of deconstruction of online news into something more approaching print but delivered via smartphone.
That’s because the likelihood of reaching a new refugee population primarily through online means is slim, given how many men and women who were working professionals back in Afghanistan have had to take jobs in the U.S. performing manual labor. Few Afghans who fled Kabul overnight have landed in office jobs that let them work remotely or situate them in front of computers all day.
A shared sense of need, displacement
Not every piece in New Home focuses on hardship. This year for the first time, Haidari said, there were enough Afghans in Minnesota to host their own community Eid celebration, a gathering marking the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Another piece focused on a small community of 16 Afghan families living in close proximity to each other in Rochester, Minn.
As a member of the Hazara ethnic group — the target of a genocidal campaign by an Afghan king in the 1890s — Haidari has seen firsthand how ethnic hostilities in his home country can lock entire tribes out of access to good jobs and important public resources. More than a century after the Hazara genocide, discrimination against his ethnicity remains rampant in Afghanistan.
He sensed none of those divisions in Rochester, where a shared sense of need and displacement had united Afghan families from different ethnic groups. He met families living in apartments side by side or across the street from each other, explaining to each other how to get driver’s licenses or apply for jobs at the Mayo Clinic. Their children play together.
“People are helping each other,” Haidari said. “They’re going outside every day to play soccer and football. They have a lovely community. (In Afghanistan, the same groups) didn’t get along.”
Readers can sign up for New Home by texting “Dari” or “Pashto” to 651-504-8170 to receive the newsletter in either language, or “Afghan” to receive the newsletter in both languages. New Home is available on Facebook at facebook.com/afghannewhome.