Sometimes, the people we meet as journalists make us feel humbled to do our jobs. Their stories stick in our minds, and we wonder what happened next…
When I first met Mati two years ago, he told me his extraordinary life story. He grew up in an Afghan mountain village without electricity or other luxuries. He had never travelled or spent a night away from his family. Then, one day, a group of men came and took his dad, who had opposed the political regime. Not long after, they came back for his 18-year-old brother. The family never saw them again.
Mati’s mother took him and his younger brother and sister to his uncle’s house in another village. As the oldest son now remaining in the family, it was not safe for him there either. Word went around that he would be next. “That is when my mum said to me: ‘you have to go’. I was really afraid, but I had no choice”, he said at the time.
Almost three months of travelling in barbaric conditions followed, crossing six or seven countries on foot and in the back of trucks. Mati had not been told where he was going or whether he would ever be reunited with his family. All he knew was to listen to the agent who was smuggling him and a group of strangers, who were all much older. They walked through snow and heat and slept in the open air.
Every time the group reached a border, the agent told them to lie down flat and not move if anyone shot at them. Fleeing was useless as no one had papers or passports. They had to leave behind group members who could not walk fast enough. The memory still haunts him.
When Mati finally got dropped on the streets of London, he thought no one would ever understand what he had been through. He now knows that – just like him – other young refugees arrive in the city every day. His rescuer at the time was an Afghan man who walked past speaking his native language on his cell phone. When Mati stopped the man to explain his situation, he wrote the words “home office” on Mati’s hand and pointed him in the right direction. The young boy eventually reached the big building where his future would be determined.
As an underage refugee, Mati was placed in a foster family. He started school not speaking a word of English and even at home he had to ring an interpreter every time a conversation with his host family got stuck. Via the Refugee Council he was brought to a training session of the charity Cricket 4 Change. Within months, he had not only got a grip on the rules and techniques, but was also supporting fellow Afghan refugee children who had arrived in the capital alone. When he explained what the sport meant to him back in 2012, I noticed the determination in his soft-spoken voice: “When I played, I wasn’t thinking too much”, he told me. “My mind was a bit at peace.”
While many traditional news outlets would consider this the end of the story, I felt the narrative should continue. I have never understood the argument that readers won’t care about a story a couple of years on. It assumes that A. everyone read it the first time around (wishful thinking) and B. that people who did read it won’t care about what happened next (if the first story was good, I believe the opposite is through: they will care even more because it struck a chord with them).
One of the reasons I love working as an independent journalist is that I have much more freedom to pursue longer term stories like Mati’s. And so, two summers on, I tracked him down to see how his life had developed. Sometimes, a second piece can add a whole new layer to the original. Freelancers are uniquely placed to follow-up on stories worth (re-)telling.
"Yes, really, I make a full-time living out of this."
This is exactly what I answer to anyone who asks me how I manage to be an independent journalist in this rapidly changing media landscape. Believe me: change is great for our industry, and -if you embrace it and are willing to keep on learning- it can be great for your business, too. We'll work through exactly how during the next Journopreneur Workshop on 5 September. If you are wondering how it can work for you, please don't hesitate to drop me a line.