Featured Storyteller

JAMAICA: There Are 196 Sides to Every Story

Farahnaz Mohammed
Posted August 25, 2016 from United States
Photo Credit: Vivek Prakash / Reuters Pictures

After struggling to find freelance work, Farahnaz Mohammed saw an opportunity to innovate.Now she is part of an international team that aims to help journalists in every country of the world be heard.

Three years ago, I was in my early twenties, living in my parents’ house and desperate for work as a journalist. Every day I scoured websites for office jobs, freelance gigs, and remote work. Every day I could rely on seeing a variation of the same refrain:

Only open to US citizens.

Must be eligible to live and work in the United States.

We cannot currently recruit international writers.

Non-EU citizens need not apply.

Open to members of the EU.

Citizens of EU states only.

My generation was largely unemployed. We were pursuing extra degrees we couldn’t really afford or retreating to alcohol or drugs to numb the reality that the ‘careers’ section of the paper was blank. Our scant networks offered no opportunities, and endless resumes didn’t solicit so much as a rejection e-mail.

I was a journalist at heart.  I’d been consuming news and analysis about the media since I was 12, and pumping out op-eds on Microsoft Word since I was 15. But there was little demand for journalism where I lived, least of all journalism from women.

I’d considered graduate studies, but couldn’t find anything worth the hefty loans I’d need. I briefly considered law school, then saw a deluge of articles warning of the imminent bursting of a lawyer bubble. I’d started the path to medical school, but (alongside the minor detail of loathing the work) saw local hospitals and clinics overrun with newly minted doctors who’d had the same idea.

Ultimately, I did the only thing I could and took freelancing jobs from the Internet, cobbling a portfolio together piece by painful piece. It did not pay my bills. Occasionally, there would be exchange programs or one-off scholarships or prizes for students, women, or specific regions. But most of the correspondent positions and assignments in different parts of the world fit the same theme: international voices not required.

This was at a time when media outlets started shuttering their foreign bureaus and editors were lamenting the overwhelming difficulty of finding talented journalists on location overseas. The paradox was frustrating, but not surprising.

I had already learned where I stood. I knew that my passport melded me into a mass commonly referred to as ‘international’—an amorphous, exotic lump. We were looked to only on occasion, and only in relation to our countries’ uprisings, coups, riots, poverty, and political scandals.

The most striking lesson came in 2010. I was headed home from university at a moment when Jamaica’s capital was in trouble.

A drug lord, Christopher Coke, was in control of a particularly dangerous part of the city, dubbed Tivoli Gardens. He finally overstepped his boundaries and drew the ire of the United States, who demanded his extradition. When forces approached Tivoli, its civilian army mobilized, leading to a three day standoff between the police, the military, and Tivoli.

I had heard murmurs of unrest in Jamaica, but my first long-term relationship was ending, and the political situation was drowned out by the self-absorption that accompanies a young girl’s first heartbreak. Midway through my flight, while I was plugged into a tiny screen watching syndicated television and crying into complimentary tomato juice, Kingston exploded.

Five hours later, as we flew into the city’s airspace, I was surprised to see a helicopter hovering over the buildings and smoke rising. Kingston was, quite literally, burning beneath us. It didn’t escape the attention of any of the passengers. The question was stamped on all our faces: Are we really landing here?

We did land only to discover that the city was on lockdown, with many roads closed. Overwhelmed staff struggled to answer people in baggage claim who were stunned and asking how to get home.

In the customs hall, the airport staff told American and British citizens to come to a separate part of the hall to discuss what could be done to keep them safe. The rest of us — Jamaicans and everyone who was not American or British— were left to our own devices.

In my panic to find a way home, I didn’t dwell too much on the racism. Later I realized the foreign airport staff had separated the Americans and the British as a world apart. They must have considered citizens of cities like Kingston hardier, calmer, more capable — not for any intrinsic strength, but because we’d been born in the developing world. Given that what they had heard of us in the media was only ever conflict, it was natural that they'd think we’d be prepared for our city, at one point or another, to erupt in flames.

This inequality inspired me to create a digital global network for people like me who had been dealt a losing hand geographically but who had talent and experience.

Two years after my ill-fated flight to Kingston, I had a stroke of miraculous fortune in the form of a scholarship to Northwestern University and a fellowship at the Knight Lab. I was once again at a computer typing furiously— not to freelance this time, but to squeeze from the Internet a way to help other international journalists.Across the world in Russia, another former journalist, Justin Varilek, had been hard at work on the same issue. Through a chance encounter on Twitter, we realized the benefit of joining forces.

The result is HackPack.press, a platform with a small, but ferociously passionate team. We believe storytelling is a powerful tool; we believe stories all over the world deserve to be told; we believe the best storytellers are the ones who know their stories; we believe there should be an easier way to find them, and we believe everyone with talent, drive, integrity, and skills should have a fair shot at a career.

Our simple, but powerful ecosystem allows journalists, videographers, photographers, editors, experts, and public relations representatives to connect with opportunities. We’re currently approaching 7,000 registered users and have worked with organizations like ICFJ, Al Jazeera, VICE, BBC, and NPR.

I continue to face all the struggles of a fledgling business, but I am remarkably lucky. That day at the airport, I was lucky to live in a neighborhood safe enough that the police would let a car through checkpoints to get there. When I couldn’t find a job, my family was willing to let me stay in my childhood room and never mentioned that I still relied on them to eat and to pay the Internet bills for the work I managed to find online. I had supportive friends nearby to counsel me when I was overcome with despair as the months without a steady paycheck crawled by. I had the benefit of an education that caught the eye of Northwestern, where I was one of two international students in my cohort, and then I stumbled into a fellowship at a remarkable innovation lab with a director who saw value in my idea, and in me, and invested no small amount of effort into both.

I live with the knowledge that across the world, a young woman smarter than me, braver than me, who speaks multiple languages, will likely never see an editor offer to pay her a living wage for her work. I know that a photographer in South America producing vivid, stunning images of our disappearing rainforests will likely get lost in a sea of free portfolio websites. I know communities who have compelling stories we could learn from and relate to will be far more hesitant to open up to a foreign reporter than someone they know, and we are all poorer for it.

The desire to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’ is deeply embedded, and reinforced daily. Fortunately, many journalists are constantly working against this drive. As I’ve grown older, the need for diverse voices has gained more recognition.

Turkish writer Elif Shafak gave a TED talk that has stayed with me for years and guided my career. She says, “Stories cannot demolish frontiers, but they can punch holes in our mental walls. And through those holes, we can get a glimpse of the other, and sometimes even like what we see.”

Comments 4

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Courtney Randolph
Aug 26, 2016
Aug 26, 2016

That last quote brought me chills. I did not know this was an issue in journalism. Thank you for this entry. I will be sure to hire more international bloggers/writers when my website is up. 

helen.ng
Aug 27, 2016
Aug 27, 2016

Thank you for sharing your inspiring and empowering experiences with us. You really helped open my eyes to issues I never knew existed in the world of journalism. 

Tamarack Verrall
Sep 06, 2016
Sep 06, 2016

Dear Farahnaz,

What an amazing story of survival and determination. In a world in which journalism is becoming increasingly narrow reread scripts due to everything you have outlined, your survival and success in founding HackPack.press is grand reason for celebration. I depend on finding real news from reporters like you. Are you also part of the International Women's Media Foundation IWMF,? Thanks too for sharing Elif Shafak's TED talk. It made me think about keeping my circles open. Good luck expanding all you are doing.

In sisterhood,

Tam 

Ahhdg
Sep 17, 2016
Sep 17, 2016

Hi Farahnaz,

Thanks for sharing your story and TED talk. Your experience has a resonance for me. When I try to applied for a volunteer job for one of governance-funding non-profit organisations, I was rejected because I'm not a citizen or holding a permanent resident visa.

Hope you can use your effor to help more international journalists.

Best,

April