Idris Ibrahim’s path from the slums of Nairobi to the University of California, Berkeley

Idris Ibrahim is sitting in his home in Nairobi, Kenya when he starts to tell me about his upbringing. It’s almost midnight in Kenya and the computer screen illuminates his face as we chat over Zoom. Idris and I are both attending UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism and were assigned to interview each other. The topic was undefined: Just draw out information that would make for a compelling story no longer than 350 words — an amount that is far too short to explain how Idris ended up at UC Berkeley. 

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His journalism path is one that starts in the slums of Nairobi, includes coverage of a terrorist shooting for CNN and blogging to help deal with the loss of a loved one. His path is also one that has overcome adversity in many forms.

Born in northern Kenya, Idris is the oldest of eight children. His mother, an Orthodox Christian, migrated to Kenya from Ethiopia in the early 1980s fleeing military conscription. She never finished formal schooling and had to use the one skill she knew best: cooking.

“She was really good at cooking Ethiopian cuisine and so she used that to get herself a job here,” Idris said. 

Like many love stories, his father was working as a server when he met his mother. The young family was living in northern Kenya still at this time and when Idris was two or three years old, his father moved away from the family for a short period to the coastal city of Mombasa for work. Shortly after his father left, Idris and his mother moved to Nairobi, the capital of Kenya.

“I think at that time, things were really rough for them,” Idris said. 

But it wasn’t long before Idris’s father rejoined the family in Nairobi. During his childhood money was a bit scarce, but books were a constant. His father encouraged him to read a lot and would bring books home quite often. So often in fact that the family eventually had a small library. 

“Which is funny, we didn’t have money basically, but we had lots and lots of books,” Idris said.

His schooling as a child was a bit sporadic with him attending a number of primary schools. It was here that Idris learned English — Idris speaks four or five languages, his Arabic is iffy, he told me. He finally found stability in his education when he reached his high school years. But the streets of Nairobi were tough, crime was common and so were gunshots as well as death. 

“I know a lot of people who never lived to celebrate their eighteenth birthday,” Idris said.

Violent crime is common in Nairobi. According to a 2019 Overseas Security Advisory Council report, most victims are left unharmed if they cooperate. “However, criminals will not hesitate to shoot a victim who is uncooperative or who may appear to hesitate before complying with their assailant,” the report reads. Violent crime eventually reached Idris personally: his dad was killed during a robbery. 

I initially forgot to ask Idris how his father died and made a note to come back to the issue. I almost just brushed it off, thinking, “Eh, it’s just for school I don’t really need the details.” But details matter in this line of work and so I asked. When I asked Idris if he could elaborate on his father’s passing, I prefaced with something like, “I’m sorry to ask and I know it must be hard, but…”

This is a part of the job that is the worst: asking people to relive trauma and prying for details about that trauma. Details matter and the lack of them is what can damage a reputation. But knowing when to stop asking is key. Idris told me that his father died in a robbery and for the current assignment that was enough information, there was no point in digging deeper. 

To process the pain of losing his father, Idris told me that he turned to writing. He used it as a way to express himself and published his thoughts on a blog called, “Idris Speaks.” He wrote about what he saw in his community and his opinions on what was happening. 

“I think this sort of formed my foundation for journalism,” Idris said. 

Idris got his start in journalism when he published a few articles for the Sahan Journal, a nonprofit newsroom based in Minnesota that focuses on immigrants and refugees. 

“The writing itself was totally different,” Idris said. “It was a transition from my opinions to now writing facts. I had the creative part, I knew how to play with words, but now you have to play with words in a correct way, like arming yourself with facts.”

For his undergrad studies, Idris attended the United States International University in Nairobi. During this time he got the opportunity to help CNN International with their coverage of a terrorist attack at a near university. On April 2, 2015, al-Shabaab, a terrorist organization in east Africa with links to al-Qaeda, had four gunmen enter Garissa University College in Garissa, Kenya and open fire indiscriminately. When the shooting stopped 148 were dead with 142 of them being students. The shooting was one of the deadliest in Kenyan history. 

“During this time, I was in training with another station called ETV,” Idris said. “CNN’s Nairobi bureau reached out looking for someone who could speak Swahili and Somali and I was there. They asked if I could work for them as a translator.”

His help covering the breaking news surrounding the shooting only lasted a day or two, but a few months later CNN reached out again, asking Idris to help cover an upcoming trip from president Barack Obama. 

“It was a good opportunity and plus they paid well,” Idris said. 

The idea to attend UC Berkeley started when he was still at USIU. Idris said the university had students and professors from all over the world and really helped him to gain a global perspective. He also had a friend who attended Berkeley as well as a few professors who spoke highly of the school. 

For now, Idris is still in Kenya because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but hopes to move to the United States as soon as restrictions are lifted. He is also working as a junior correspondent for east Africa for Deutsche Welle, a German international broadcast station. His latest story focuses on how private companies are stepping in to help the Somali government deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Our conversation only lasted about an hour with Idris asking me about details of my life. He is representative of the diversity of the program — one that currently has students from my cohort in about five countries across the world. What he hopes to get out of his time at UC Berkeley is the ability to report news that is happening across the African continent. He wants to focus on the struggle for democracy as well as illicit gun sales. 

“What is causing a lot of conflict in Africa is the business of the illegal trade of firearms,” Idris said. “Weapons get here and fuel clashes between communities, fuel clashes between local militia and terror groups like al-Shabaad in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria. So, hopefully by the time I am done with this program I will be able to find where all this starts from.”

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