From Willmar to Kenya: Hamdi Kosar’s Homecoming

This is the second part of an ongoing documentary project that began in the fall of 2017. I began documenting Hamdi Kosar, a current Willmar, MN resident, in an effort to share the experience of a Somali refugee living in rural Minnesota. This project was funded by the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council and Willmar Lakes Area Vision 2040.

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.

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.

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.”

This story was published in the West Central Tribune.