Rural Refugee Project

Rural Refugee Project Guest Blog
By Erica Dischino

Following your gut can be a hard thing to do.

“Is this even possible? Will anyone believe in me? How will this all work out? Am I good enough?” are frequent thoughts that race through your mind. But, in moments of clarity there’s a little voice that tells you the truth.

You can do it.

I moved to Willmar about two years ago after accepting a photojournalist position at the West Central Tribune. Knowing very little about the midwest and Minnesota in general, I packed my bags and drove from my hometown in northern New Jersey to Kandiyohi County. I was nervous and excited - I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into.

As I became more familiar with the community, it was clear that Willmar was undergoing a huge transition. And with change always comes growing pains.

Rural Refugee Project

Minnesota houses the largest population of Somali refugees in the U.S. 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. The changing demographic called for a complex transition with many different moving parts.

While the Somali population has made huge strides by opening restaurants, pursuing their education, and starting a community center - there is a clear separation between refugees and the rest of the community.

These growing pains sparked my curiosity. I wanted to find out more and to understand the journey of our more recent community members. Afterall, I am a new community member too.

As the photographer for the Tribune, I often interacted with Somali refugees. These interactions were brief - a light conversation, some photos taken, a shared smile. This became frustrating to me. How could I accurately capture the whole story with such brief encounters?

Then I met Hamdi Kosar, a 21-year-old Somali refugee who has lived in Willmar for almost a decade. Beginning fall of 2017, Hamdi granted me the privilege of photographing her everyday life. I have followed her through many trials and triumphs and it is an honor to witness her growth. With my camera in hand, we’ve been through a lot together over the past months. Whether it’s watching her tell her story in front of hundreds of people to studying for an exam.

These photographs turned into what is now “The Rural Refugee Project.” This August, I will be traveling with Hamdi and Jessica Rohloff, Hamdi’s friend, mentor and colleague, back to Garissa, Kenya to visit her family and the Dagahaley Refugee Camp where she was born.


The Rural Refugee Project aims to complete the body of work about Hamdi in an effort to build cross-cultural relationships and change perceptions of refugees in our community. The project includes community outreach events before the trip to Kenya, blogging and live-updates following our journey, a finale publication, and a public presentation to community members of the completed photo essay of Hamdi’s experiences. The project is currently supported by a Southwest Minnesota Arts Council grant, project funding from Willmar Lakes Area Vision 2040, and donations from a GoFundMe campaign.

Following your gut can be a hard thing to do, but sometimes it leads you to places you never could have imagined. The trip to Kenya will not be an easy one. There are a lot of preparations and safety precautions we will take in order to remain safe - especially near the Kenya and Somalia border.

My camera allows me to capture incredible stories - stories that become a part of my story. Stories that have helped foster my empathy, shape how I see that world, and learn how others see theirs. As I anxiously await for August to come, I know that I will be forever changed by this experience.

Among these young refugees, there is a sense of resilience and ability to thrive in a completely foreign environment. Despite our major differences, I found connection in their experiences - longing for home, trying to fit in, and creating a culture that is both a mixture of where they came from and where they are now.

Hamdi cares about our rural community. But, she is not alone. Together, we hope to create a more sustainable future by finding the middle ground - and sharing her story is how we can do that.

To follow our journey and for more information, check out the GoFundMe campaign and like the Rural Refugee Project Facebook and Instagram page. There you will be able to see project updates, find out about upcoming community engagements, and view live-updates while in Kenya.

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