Reporting on immigrants and refugees is a daunting task. Getting that coverage back to those protagonists can be equally difficult, especially if the reporter and publication use a different language.
Mazin Sidahmed started his career as a software engineer, but his passion for journalism led him to cover immigrants and refugees, first reporting about the plight of Syrian refugees in Lebanon before moving to the United States and reporting on broader immigration issues.
In early 2017, following the inauguration and early dramatic policy changes around immigration from the Trump administration, Sidahmed and a friend started thinking about taking on a project focused on immigration reform. They received a grant to start a newsroom and saw a great opportunity to work more directly with the immigrant and refugee community.
Their project, Documented, covers “New York City immigrants and the policies that affect their lives,” Sidahmed says. “One of the things we knew starting this was people who work on immigration issues professionally will gravitate toward our work.”
The challenge, then, was finding ways to get their work out in front of the people who would be not only their audience, but their sources and the voices in their reporting.
“When I was in Lebanon, I’d go to a refugee camp, go back and write a story, and there would be no connection to the protagonist of my story. The story was published in a language they don’t speak. … We wanted to break that cycle and make sure the people affected by our stories were the people reading our stories. We started off thinking it would be easy, we’d just translate our stories into other languages and people would find it. That wasn’t the case.”
They partnered with a professor who taught a class on reporting with communities and learned, through a year-long project, that while people were interested in the expected kind of information — how to find lawyers, how to extend visas — but learned there was no centralized place to get information and the resources they were looking to access.
They also learned that the immigrant and refugee community utilized WhatsApp, a secure social networking platform, to share what information they had.
Documented is now a WhatsApp newsletter. People are finding their articles and reporting via searches, in which a few sentences are published but readers are encouraged to send Documented a message and join their group.
“It has revolutionized our approach to journalism,” Sidahmed says. “We re-engineered our newsroom to be focused from the ground-up, making sure people affected by our stories were our readers. We didn’t realize what it took to achieve that until we did community engagement work. Now we are reaching a place where that’s true and we’re building a secure relationship. People are feeding us information that’s the source of stories, and they’re in the stories. It’s become more organic.”
It’s All Journalism host Michael O’Connell speaks with Mazin Sidahmed, founder of the immigration publication Documented. They discuss how WhatsApp has become Documented’s distribution network and why listening to the immigration and refugee community changed the course of his work.