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Mukhtar Ibrahim: The Witness

Mukhtar Ibrahim

Mukhtar Ibrahim Colin Michael Simmons

City Pages' People Issue celebrates people making Minnesota a better place.

One year after Mukhtar Ibrahim moved to Minnesota at 17, young men started disappearing from Minneapolis only to show up in Somalia at the bidding of the fundamentalist terrorist group Al-Shabab.

Ibrahim was a biochem freshman in college at the time, studying to become a doctor, yet totally absorbed by the local news.

The mysterious radicalization of those teenagers, which had occurred under the noses of parents and teachers, shone a harsh, interrogative light on his Somali community. For Minnesotans without prior exposure, terror charges and FBI calls for vigilance were their only window in.

At the same time, Ibrahim admired the way some reporters fought to penetrate the authorities’ official line and the families’ defensive walls to find the heart of the story: what motivated the men to leave, and how their friends and family coped with that choice. He listened as public radio reporters entered mosques and coffee shops to record calls to prayer, the clink of cups, and interviews with regular people. And then, Ibrahim switched his major to journalism and got a job with MPR. He hit the streets door-knocking, begging to listen to anyone who would let him in.

For 10 years, Ibrahim traversed the labyrinthine issue of terrorist recruitment, working from the lonely and oft-misunderstand outpost between his personal ties to the Somali community and his professional duty as a reporter, always striving for greater proximity to the people most directly impacted. Some community members found his persistence suspect. Occasionally law enforcement and courthouse security challenged his objectivity and blocked his access. Those experiences were a trial by fire.

Last summer Ibrahim left the Star Tribune after a turn covering city government to run his own news startup, Sahan Journal. Sahan, which means “pioneer,” aims to be a constant witness to immigrant communities’ successes, challenges, and transformations—when buildings burn, but also when businesses open.

Ibrahim has fundraised enough to hire several reporters and a managing editor this summer.

His advice for the next generation of journalists heading into a hyper-competitive, contracting industry trying to make change through outlets like his: go boldly.

“You’re facing this institution that has its own way of doing things, and if you try to change the status quo, you’ll be labeled a troublemaker,” he says.

“So if you care about some community and you want to write about it, you should go for it. That’s how you stand out, with stories that other people aren’t writing about. What values can you bring that are missing from these newsrooms?” 

Click here to read other profiles from this year's City Pages People Issue.