The unlikely story and friendship of an American reporter and a Somali Olympian
Samia Yusuf Omar at the national track in Addis. All photos are used with permission from Teresa Krug.
Asha Siad is a Somali-Canadian multimedia journalist and documentary filmmaker who has reported for CBC News, the Calgary Journal, Shaw TV and Frontiere News. Asha is also 2015 ivoh summit attendee. You can follow her on Twitter at @AshaReports .
When Teresa Krug came across a job application in 2009 to teach abroad in Somaliland, she jumped at the opportunity. Krug was living in San Francisco at the time and it was the middle of the recession. The 25-year-old journalist, originally from Iowa, moved to the region with a goal to get her journalism career off the ground.
Krug began teaching at a local college and pitching stories on the side. However, her story ideas on peace and stability in North Somaliland were not gaining the interest of potential publishers.
It was not until she came across a magazine looking to feature female athletes, that Krug discovered a story that would ultimately challenge her on a professional and personal level.
While searching for potential ideas, Krug became moved by the story of a 19-year-old sprinter named Samia Yusuf Omar. Samia represented Somalia at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. According to an Al Jazeera article, Samia faced backlash and death threats by the al-shabab upon returning to Somalia.
“I had no idea what kind of situation she was in when I first heard of her name…the story definitely changed for me a lot and my relationship with it,” Krug said. “She was living in the South (Mogadishu) and I was living in the North and I was not even sure if she was still alive.”
Krug spent the next few months speaking with anyone who had information on Samia. A couple of months later, Krug arranged a flight for Samia to come and meet her in Somaliland.
They met on a spring day in May of 2010. Their meeting was not how Krug had planned. Krug laughs as she recalls chalking her expectations to being naïve at the time — expecting Samia to leap off the plane to embrace her.
“She was very suspicious and she was very withdrawn and she was very resistant to a lot of my questioning,” Krug said. “I mean it was only after I had some distance from the interviews and she had gone back to Mogadishu that I realized that I did not fully comprehend the fact that she was living in a war still and that she felt her family was very much at risk.”
Krug realized her project was going to be more work than she had imagined. Since Samia did not speak any English, they often used a translator during phone calls. Still, Krug wanted to meet with Samia again.
She wanted to get a sense of who Samia was outside of being an athlete, so their second meeting in Somaliland consisted of social activities including going to the zoo.
Samia later moved to Ethiopia and stayed with her family, while Krug moved to Doha a couple of weeks later.
At that point Krug felt like she had a lot of Samia’s story. She was ambitiously pursuing a book with the goal of giving some context to the last 20 years of Somalia through Samia’s perspective.
They stayed connected through Facebook and met in the spring of 2011. Krug traveled to Addis Ababa and met Samia. Krug traveled to Addis Ababa and met Samia without her translator, who was stuck in Somaliland due to the weather conditions.
Samia and Krug had an opportunity to hang out without a middle person to facilitate the conversation or responses. Krug said it was at that moment when she began to see a shift in their relationship.
“I felt like she trusted me, she was starting to see me as someone she could rely on or it seemed like it was more of a friendship,” Krug said “...I had suddenly transitioned from being this objective observer to trying to help her with some long-term goals of hers.”
These long-term goals included trying to make Samia’s life in Ethiopia more stable. Krug set out to find sports sponsors, funders and even an English tutor to help Samia, who had an eighth grade education, support her family past her running career.
During an interview with ivoh, Krug expressed multiple dilemmas she faced while covering a story she was deeply invested in.
“I often wonder how other people approach stories that they go into without being sucked in,” Krug said. “In one sense I felt guilty because I was helping her and I felt that that was contradicting my goals as a journalist and at the same time I felt guilty for not doing more because I felt that I was in a position to do more.”
By the time Krug left Ethiopia she decided to put down the project and felt more relieved. “I realized that the book did not need to come out now. It was not going to be the salvation for Somalia; this was not going to be the salvation for Samia,” Krug said. “Again she was only 19 or 20 at this point, her life story was not over so there was also a part of me that realized that I could tell the story later…”
Krug continued to stay in contact with Samia. She noted that Samia was becoming anxious about whether she would be competing in the upcoming London Olympics. Krug told her to stay still.
“Then the messages I got from her were progressively alarming and so one day she told me that she was going to go to Libya and could hopefully get into Italy so she could find a coach,” Krug said.
During this time, it was the summer of 2011 and the world was witnessing the Arab Spring. Krug was working at the Al Jazeera office in Doha and receiving information about the situation in Libya.
Krug said all she could think was that Samia is about to go into another war.
Samia, like many young individuals from Somalia and Eritrea, took the perilous journey to Europe. She left Ethiopia and made her way through Sudan and into Libya. Krug attempted to contact her over the next few weeks and months. Samia finally messaged Krug and told her she had been in jail and that she was ok but still needed help.
Krug never heard from Samia again.
Samia was reported to have died in early April of 2012. Krug was still reaching out periodically to Samia and wasn’t getting any response.
The London Olympics came and went. Towards the end of the Olympics there was a gathering of Somali Olympic committee members. Abdi Bile, a famous runner within the Somali community, made an announcement about Samia. A contact of Krug’s sent her the video of Bile speaking in Somali saying that Samia had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach Europe.
“Because I do not speak Somali there was a part of me that hoped the translation was somehow false. You know, there was a part of me that hoped that she had not passed away,” Krug said.
Krug did a number of interviews with journalists searching for hope and trying to find help for the rest of Samia’s family. After a week or two, she pulled back because she needed some time to mourn.
“Then I remember being angry and I wrote about it in a piece for Al Jazeera English, where I talked about these great times that we had together and how I was mourning but also I was a bit angry at my industry,” Krug said. “You know journalists seem to only focus on stories after a person has passed away, and so even though people are struggling here and there it is not until you see a picture of a small Syrian child washed up against a shore that all of a sudden people are spurred into action…”
Everyone Krug spoke with — Samia’s mother, her siblings, her coaches — feel as if they could have done more to help Samia. But they could not have talked Samia out of following her dreams.
Krug is currently working on smaller writing pieces about Samia’s story and hopes to write a book in the future.
“I really want people to come away from the story of Samia, understanding that it is not a world away from them or that these people are so much different from them.”