by Emma Johnston, Zachary Jones Neuray
Borderless Magazine’s Pathways program addresses racial and ethnic gaps in the journalism industry by providing opportunities for journalists from immigrant and other marginalized communities to report on immigration and learn from professional journalists. Borderless’ staff mentors emerging and newly-arrived journalists through internships and fellowships and gives mentees comprehensive training in interviewing, writing, research and visual storytelling. An example of the impact of this program can be seen in the work of one recent Pathways recipient, Saleha Soadat, an Afghan journalist who was evacuated from Kabul following the country’s takeover by the Taliban.
Organization Background: Borderless Magazine is a multilingual Chicago-based, nonprofit media organization that reports and investigates injustice, immigration, labor and advocacy issues throughout the Midwest. Borderless grew out of a rapid-response journalism project created in 2017 called 90 Days, 90 Voices, which uplifted the stories of immigrants in Chicago impacted by Trump’s Muslim Ban, and it has been in its current nonprofit form since October 2019. The organization’s mission is to reimagine immigration journalism for a more just and equitable future. Borderless takes an ecosystem approach to change through its three programs: its team reports and publishes stories in its online magazine, mentors emerging immigrant and BIPOC journalists in its Pathways program, and gives journalists from other news outlets the tools they need to report on immigration issues fairly and accurately in its Immigration Reporting Lab.
Project Goals: Borderless Pathways program seeks to address racial and ethnic inequities in the journalism industry by providing paid opportunities for journalists from immigrant and BIPOC communities to gain professional experience. Each year, the Borderless team spends over 1,000 hours mentoring and training Pathways participants. Pathways alumni have gone on to work for places like The Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Apple News, NBC News and U.S. News & World Report.
An example of the impact this program has had on journalists and the industry can be seen in Afghan journalist Saleha Soadat. As a Pathways fellow in 2022, Saleha reported the magazine’s series “Broken-winged Birds: Afghans in Exile,” which shared the story of Afghans who were now living in the U.S. after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. Saleha was an accomplished TV journalist in Afghanistan, but when she arrived in the United States, she did not know English and had never worked for a non-Afghan news outlet.
Project Resources: Saleha’s fellowship salary was funded by grants from Crossroads Fund and PEN America, along with donations from Borderless members. Additional expenses included paying Borderless’ art director and editor for their work on the series, hiring a freelance photographer and editor for extra support and paying for travel expenses for two reporting trips.
Tools & Technology: The tools and technology used to coordinate and operate this project consisted of:
- Google Docs
- Zoom and Google Meets
Saleha’s fellowship began during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many interactions between reporters and editors were remote, and the team used Zoom and Google Meets for meetings. Saleha translated the Broken-winged Birds series into Dari with assistance from the WordPress plugin WeGlot on the Borderless website, making Borderless the only local news outlet in the country to offer coverage in the language most commonly spoken by Afghan refugees. Borderless is committed to providing the highest-quality journalism in whatever language it publishes and has pioneered the blended use of AI and human translations in the nonprofit news industry.
Impact: Saleha’s series was widely read by regular Borderless readers and Afghans living outside of Chicago. The Borderless team was surprised to see a spike in website traffic from readers in Afghanistan after Saleha’s stories were published. For non-Afghans, the project raised awareness of and humanized the stories and experiences of Afghan refugees in America. Saleha’s fellowship at Borderless was also featured in a segment on Newsy (now Scripps News) and Saleha was able to get another fellowship with IWMF with Borderless’ support. After finishing her fellowship, Saleha got a scholarship to get her Master’s degree in media and communication at Texas Tech University. Since then, she has been selected as a Vital Voices fellow and was recognized by the Texas International Education Consortium and GeoVisions as a Researcher for Greater Understanding. “The [Pathways] program has incredibly benefited me, providing opportunities to collaborate with talented individuals and access resources to further my creative endeavors. I am proud to have been a part of it and am grateful to Borderless for its support,” says Saleha.
How it Happened
- Rapid response journalism project called 90 Days, 90 Voices launched online as a Medium blog in 2017.
- Support from local Chicagoans, who demand better reporting on immigration and diversity, led to the relaunch and rebranding in October 2019 as Borderless Magazine.
- Borderless’ first Pathways intern, Diane Bou Khalil, started in January 2020. Diane eventually becomes Borderless’ full-time engagement reporter.
- In the spring of 2022, Borderless learns of Saleha Soadat and mobilizes quickly to fundraise for a fellowship for her.
- Borderless wins LION’s Community Engagement Award for its Dari coverage and is a finalist for INN’s Community Champion Award.
1. Reporter and editor collaboration
Reporter Saleha Soadat described the relationship between her and the Borderless staff as “on an equal plane.” Soadat was given the creative freedom to explore new ideas, expanding how Afghan refugee stories can be told. Soadat also had the privilege of collaborating with journalists in the Pathways Program, giving useful experience to up-and-coming BIPOC journalists.
2. Documenting Afghan refugee women as an Afghan refugee woman
Reporter Soadat is an Afghan refugee herself. As she explained, “On August 19th, 2021, I left my country, home, family, and friends with the cooperation of the American Embassy in Kabul, in the middle of the night with only one dress and a backpack, together with a fellow journalist, without knowing where we were going.” Given her firsthand experience, Soadat was able to write Afghan narratives from a unique perspective. Soadat could relate to Afghans who have experienced similar circumstances.
What Could Have Worked Better
1. Challenges of working with a limited budget
Borderless would like to offer longer Pathways fellowships and internships but has been unable to do so because of a limited budget. Saleha’s fellowship lasted four months, and most other Pathways participants have three-month tenures. By expanding fellowships to six or even 12 months, both fellows and Borderless could get more out of the program. Additionally, a more robust travel budget could allow more Pathways participants to travel beyond Chicago for reporting.
2. Hesitation to share their stories
There are many risks for Afghan refugees sharing their stories publicly. Therefore, several potential subjects hesitated or refused to participate in the Broken Winged-birds project. “Most of the target interviewees hesitated to share their stories because of their unknown immigration status and socio-political sensitivities.” Given the situation’s sensitivity, Soadat prioritized her subjects’ safety and mental well-being.
What Else You Should Know
Saleha Soadat left Afghanistan in 2021. She left her family, friends, job, and culture to seek refuge in America. “Nothing was known; I didn’t even hope to leave Afghanistan alive. I had no hope of getting out safely due to Kabul’s miserable and deadly situation.” Read Saleha Soadat’s story here.
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