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Rural Refugee Project

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My camera allows me to capture incredible stories - stories that become a part of my story. Stories that have helped foster my empathy, shape how I see that world, and learn how others see theirs.  

As the photojournalist for the West Central Tribune , I have been documenting the Somali refugee community  based in Willmar, MN since the fall of 2017. 

Recently, I received a Developing Artist grant from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council and funding support from Willmar Lakes Area Vision 2040  to visually document Hamdi Kosar’s voyage back to Kenya. Hamdi, a 21-year-old Somali refugee who currently lives in Willmar, MN, will see her relatives in Nairobi who she hasn’t seen in around a decade and return to the Dagahaley Refugee Camp where she was born. We are travelling together with Jessica Rohloff, Hamdi's colleague and friend.  In order to make the trip in August 2019, we need to raise an additional $3,500.

Who I am 

My name is Erica Dischino and I am currently the photojournalist for the West Central Tribune, a daily newspaper that covers over six counties in rural Minnesota.  I grew up in New Jersey and graduated from Ithaca College with a Bachelor's Degree in Journalism with minors in photography and anthropology.  After graduating from college, I found myself located in the heart of agricultural America where I have the privilege of capturing people's stories. As an artist and photographer, I hope to foster empathy and community healing through my work.

Why we’re doing this

The state of Minnesota houses the largest population of Somali refugees in the U.S. While many of these refugees reside in the larger Twin Cities metro area, others have moved to rural cities and towns throughout the state.

In Willmar, Hamdi and others like her face a unique challenge.

While the Somali population in this rural regional center has made huge strides by opening restaurants, pursuing their education, and starting community centers - there is a clear separation between refugees and the rest of the community. This separation creates assumptions, fear, and misunderstanding.

Hamdi is an activist, author, college student, sister - much more than just a refugee. I am constantly inspired by her courage and ability to make a home for herself in a place thousands of miles away from everything she once knew. It is honor to witness her growth, trials and triumphs. 

By documenting Hamdi’s trip back to Kenya, we hope to build bridges within the Willmar community and community at large. Among these young refugees, there is a sense of resilience and ability to thrive in a completely foreign environment. Despite our major differences, I found connection in their experiences - longing for home, trying to fit in, and creating a culture that is both a mixture of where they came from and where they are now. 

Stories are how we survive.

Hamdi cares about her rural community. But, she is not alone. Together, we hope to create a more sustainable future by finding the middle ground - and sharing her story is how we can do that.

The Backstory

Hamdi was 12 years old when she left everything she knew and came to the United States to find a better life. She and her family boarded a bus in the middle of the night, said goodbye to their friends, and dreamed of the new life they were going to have.

She was born at the Dagahaley Refugee Camp, one of four refugee camps based in Dadaab, Kenya, housing Somali refugees who escaped their home country's political and economic instability. Hamdi has never set foot in Somalia, but the country has shaped her life in many ways. In March 2011, the Kosar family traveled from Kenya to Arizona, then to several towns in Minnesota, eventually settling in Willmar.

In November 2017, Hamdi allowed me to begin photographing her and share what is now the Rural Refugee Project. This project is a compilation of captured intimate moments of her and her family over the course of nine months.These images were published in a photo essay for the West Central Tribune. The published piece focuses on Hamdi’s life in Willmar and the Rural Refugee Project will be furthered by photographing her story in Kenya.

The Outcome

This project aims to deepen connections within the Willmar community and beyond by expanding residents’ knowledge and perception of what it is like to live as refugee in this area and the journey they took to get here.

The images I took beginning in 2017 through October 2019 will be compiled into a longer photo essay for digital and print publications to provide access to a wider audience. Allowing for digital access to the project will encourage more viewers to learn her story. Hamdi, Jessica and I will also hold an artist talk upon completion of the project that will be held in Willmar in October 2019 to present the body of work and provide a more in-depth look on how the photographs were created.

Thank you, truly.

We are so incredibly grateful for your consideration to donate to the Rural Refugee Project. Traveling to Kenya from Minnesota is expensive and takes a lot of resources. With your support, we will be able to do the necessary preparation work for before, during and after the trip to Kenya. Your donation will provide the resources to tell Hamdi Kosar’s story, start conversations and create change.

Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.

For more information, please email me at [email redacted] or check out my website and Instagram.  Don’t forget to like our Rural Refugee Project Facebook Page  for updates on our journey.

Check out the project here .



  • Cindy Rice
    • $100 
    • 5 yrs


Erica Dischino
Willmar, MN

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