Early Arrival’s Community Corner leverages the voices of subscribers, immigration professionals, and our in-house reporters to highlight immigrant affairs, concerns and reporting.
This week, we shine a spotlight on lifelong New Yorker Amir Khafagy, who joined Documented as a Report for America corps member covering labor as it relates to New York’s immigrant communities. Below, Khafagy highlights how diversity in Documented reporters’ socioethnic and economic backgrounds helps reporters identify and tell immigrants’ stories.
Documented: Since joining us as a full-time journalist, what has stood out to you about our reporting approach versus your previous experience with other outlets, or other reports you see? Two good cases in point: the story you wrote on UPS warehouse workers and newly arrived migrants in New York.
Amir Khafagy: I like to do stories that are very character driven, give voice to the voiceless, and that you won’t necessarily see on larger mainstream news. And what I like about Documented is that we do give the time and the consideration, and put in the effort to tell stories that go a little deeper. We investigate the stories behind the stories, and give voice to those on the margins of society. That’s what’s always appealing to me about Documented.
For instance, with the stories about UPS workers, a lot of journalists got the same press release that I got talking about the UPS drivers, how many of them were having a hard time with the heat, and many of them were fainting. I think at least two UPS drivers had died because of the heat in the trucks. So that was taking national attention. The New York Times did the story, THE CITY did the story. Several outlets were doing similar stories.
And I thought well, if it’s bad in the UPS trucks, what is it like in the UPS warehouse? And what kind of workers are working at the UPS warehouses? Are they immigrant workers?
These questions allowed me to think deeper, and beyond just reporting on what everyone else was reporting. It got me to think a little bit outside the box. No pun intended, being a UPS story. But it allowed me to say, ‘okay, everyone’s doing the trucks. Let’s look at the warehouse, what’s going on inside the warehouse?’ And we found in our investigation, a lot of horrible things were happening in the warehouse that were going underreported and continue to go underreported.
And the same thing is true with the newly arrived migrant story.
The migrant story, I saw as the most important immigration story of the moment right now in New York City. I felt like it was Documented’s duty to cover it sufficiently. I got some contacts with community organizers and I was hearing all kinds of stories about how the city was failing to do something substantial. So I felt like at Documented, we were able to not just report what everyone was reporting: ‘Hey, these migrants are coming off the bus and everyone’s coming to the Port Authority Bus Terminal,’ and getting those pictures of them coming off the bus.
When [fellow Documented reporter] Giulia [McDonnell Nieto del Rio] and I went, the terminal was crowded with journalists from all over the country reporting the same kind of story. Giulia and I were able to spend a little more time walking the streets of Manhattan till 3 o’clock in the morning, seeing the underbelly of Manhattan. We saw a bunch of crazy things the night we walked around, and we were able to really dig a little deeper and find out what really was going on. And that’s why both of our stories really uncovered how the city was failing the migrants in a way that you weren’t seeing in the rest of the outlets.
How did you find some of the people that you wrote about in the UPS warehouse workers story?
That was just from being able to find a network of warehouse workers who were protesting the conditions. They had rallies at the UPS warehouses, and I was able to make contacts with several workers who had detailed different experiences working in the warehouse.
I like people and I’m always interested in people. I’m not interested in the press person that usually…like if you work with a union on a story, the unions tend to push the people that they want you to talk to. That can be a great start. But I’m always looking for someone who’s not going to just say what the union wants them to say, but is going to speak from their heart and speak from their gut. If you’re at a rally, who’s the guy that is standing a little ajar, who’s involved but not involved? That’s the person I want to talk to.
That makes sense. How would you say that your personal experience — your background, your experience living in the city, and your perspectives— has helped you report on stories?
For eight years, my dad ran a 99 cents store in Jackson Heights, Queens. And every day after school, I would go and work with my father. I was there in that store all day. I grew up there; I would do my homework; interact with all kinds of people from a very young age, right. Being in that store, and in a very diverse place, like Jackson Heights, I came across all kinds of people. It made me mature much faster and build this love for people.
It was the kind of store people used to come, buy coffee, sit and talk politics, and gossip. I got to have just an interest in people, but also community, and I would hear all kinds of things about what was going on in the community. People would go to my dad’s store, and my dad would help them find an apartment, help them find a used car, if they needed one. It was that kind of store. It was like the hub for the Egyptian community in Jackson Heights, but it was also the hub for the entire community.
So that helped me build this interest in people and talking to people, listening to people. And then being a community organizer, a student organizer and labor organizer, I just developed the skills to be able to identify issues that probably go under the radar and identify people who would be interested in talking. I would often recruit people to join the organization or whatever we were organizing. When you recruit people, you develop skills to convince people to get involved. It helps as a journalist because you can convince people to talk to you.
Effectively, your life’s experience has influenced the type of stories you’ve written, which many others might miss. We’ve seen how this translates in your reporting of previous stories, including the Bronx fire story, the taxi medallion crisis, hurricane Ida, and others. That’s a good thing.
Often many journalists in this profession come from elite backgrounds, and from elite universities. And that’s fine. That’s not a problem within itself. The problem is when that becomes the rule. Because they are overrepresented in the media.
I could report on evictions, because my family was evicted. And I know firsthand what that’s like. So I can explain it to you. I can explore that topic in depth. Same thing with gentrification. I live in a community that’s been gentrified. So I know what it means to be able to be priced out of that community. I can report that in a way that someone who doesn’t have that experience won’t understand.
My dad was a small business owner, so I know firsthand what it’s like to struggle as a small business owner in New York. My dad was a cab driver, a yellow cab driver. He did that and owned a store at the same time. Gun violence, my family was affected by gun violence because my father was shot. He is alive. But my father was a victim of gun violence. So I know how devastating gun violence was to someone’s life because I experienced it.
Do you get the sense that there’ll always be a deficit in newsrooms and news reports without community journalism and investing in people from diverse backgrounds?
I think there’ll always be a deficit unless efforts are made to create community newsrooms by investing in people who come from “non-traditional” backgrounds, to report on stories. There’s so many people who are journalists on their own without a degree. And they don’t even realize it. So many people are reporting what’s happening in their own communities every day on Twitter, Tik Tok, YouTube, Facebook. Look at Citizen app. People are participating in Citizen app, and reporting things that are happening in their communities, and journalists utilize these kinds of social media platforms for stories.
All stories emerge from communities themselves, right? I think it’s so important to invest in those people and develop their skills because many of them instinctually are journalists. So I think that’s really important.