Interview: ‘Palestine in America’ founder takes on mainstream journalism

Like many Palestinians living in the United States, Chicago-native Nader Ihmoud had grown tired of the way he and his fellow countrymen and countrywomen were portrayed in the public sphere. Either their achievements or contributions were entirely ignored or, when they did earn themselves a bit of airtime, the coverage was almost always negative, as though Palestinians had somehow failed to earn the privilege of fair media treatment. So Nader decided to do something about it.

As true to its name as something can ever be, Nader founded Palestine in America to do what traditional American media simply refuses to do.

We caught up with Nader and asked him a few questions about his latest project and about what he hopes to achieve.

SMP: What compelled you to start Palestine in America (PiA)?

Nader Ihmoud: I attended Columbia College, where I got my degree in broadcast journalism. My dream was to become a sports reporter, specifically a Chicago Bulls beat reporter. I even wanted to stay away from reporting on Palestine because I felt I was too passionate about Palestine to report objectively.

That all changed when two Palestinian boys walking home from soccer practice were shot by Israeli soldiers and attacked by military dogs. It was my senior year and I was responsible for a weekly sports column in The Columbia Chronicle, the school’s award-winning weekly. I wrote about the assault and how FIFA should step in, but during that week’s production cycle, I was informed that my column would be withheld — censored — for a week until the story could be corroborated. I had already confirmed the story through two news outlets, but my advisors chose not to run the story because no Israeli news outlet had reported it. The article ran the following week but I had to jump through hoops just to get it printed. That situation made me second-guess my dream.

After graduating, I turned my attention to Palestinian-Americans and their culture within the United States. The more I reported on Palestinians in America, the more I realized there wasn’t a publication in the U.S. that catered to us. That’s how I realized my newest dream.

SMP: What’s your connection to Palestine?

NH: My parents are both from Palestine, from a village in the West Bank called Turmosayya. My mother’s parents are originally from ‘Ilar Al-Quds which was ethnically cleansed by Israel during the Nakba (1947-1949). I’ve visited Palestine only once in my life. I stayed for four months when I was about 13 years old and I fell in love. I hope to move and retire there, God-willing. My father owns land in Palestine that I hope to utilize in the future.

SMP: How has your upbringing contributed to your social consciousness and, today, your work through PiA?

NH: My parents were instrumental in teaching me about Palestine and its plight ever since I was young. I was brought up to be proud of my heritage. We went to Palestinian weddings, celebrated the rich history and flavor of Palestinian cuisine, and visited Palestine whenever possible. I was also brought up a Muslim, and the Islamic teachings guided me into becoming socially conscious. These days, not caring about things is the ‘cool’ thing to do. I refuse to not care about the world around me — especially the oppressed, regardless of their background.

SMP: What do you hope to achieve through PiA?

NH: I hope to inform people in the U.S. about the vibrant and beautiful Palestinian-American community and culture that is very much alive here in America. I hope to share amazing and inspiring stories about Palestinians in the U.S. so that we can learn about and learn from one another while showing the American public who we are and what we’re about.

SMP: What are some of the things you have done through PiA? Which of these was most fun to put together? Which of these do you think has been most effective so far? Which of these gave you the most trouble or difficulty?

NH: I’ve covered Rasmea Odeh’s trial in Detroit as well as pro-Palestine protests in Chicago and Washington, D.C. I’ve become more familiar with the grassroots activism scene and the role of students in the greater Palestinian movement. More than anything else, I’ve met a lot of Palestinian-Americans that I did not know before, and I think that has been the most fun. Interacting and learning about fellow Palestinians living in the U.S. has been eye-opening and very fulfilling and that has made me very happy.

On the flipside, the most difficult challenge is getting content. I have writers and reporters who do great work for PiA, but there is always so much going on at any given moment that it becomes very difficult to cover it all with such limited staff and resources. The goal is to overcome this challenge by having reporters in every major Palestinian community across the country.

SMP: How do you think PiA will revolutionize or improve public perception of Palestinians in the United States?

NH: Ideally PiA will become a staple resource through which people of all backgrounds can learn about U.S. policies that affect Palestinians abroad and even the Palestinians here in the U.S. It will also serve as an outlet for people to learn about the great contributions Palestinian-Americans have made to their respective communities. Readers will better understand the integral role that Palestinians play in the great American melting pot, and in turn, this will help to humanize the Palestinians living directly under Israel’s military occupation.

SMP: PiA has been characterized by many as important, crucial, and necessary to fill a disconcerting void. Why do you think that is?

NH: That’s very flattering and I am thrilled that the response to PiA is so positive. I think PiA is characterized this way because there isn’t a mainstream publication that does anything that we seek to do. PiA is really set on identifying areas where Palestinians are underreported or even misreported and correcting that coverage with honest, unique journalism that reframes and hopefully improves public perception of Palestinians in the U.S. It is also unique in that it gives Palestinian-Americans a formal outlet to publish their creative work and an opportunity for journalists to report on Palestine without fear of censorship.

SMP: Who else works with you on PiA? What kind of resources, personal and otherwise, have gone into making this project what it is today?

NH: Initially, it was mostly just myself with help from family. I wrote the articles, designed the website, set up the social media accounts, and settled on the name. My sister and brother-in-law serve as advisors, for which I am truly grateful. My sister has even taken on larger roles, including being the site’s main designer. She is the one who designed the official PiA logo. With time, more people have gotten involved and have even reached out to PiA to contribute. I have colleagues reporting for large papers who volunteer their time to edit our pieces for accuracy and style. I also have a small team of creative advisors like Ahmed Hamad, who I consult about video production.
It’s becoming more and more of a collective effort that I hope will continue to grow.

SMP: Keeping up with news from Palestine can be stressful. How do you handle the stress?

NH: It’s extremely stressful, but my training in journalism has taught me to handle the stress of bad news. Some of what I cover can evoke very strong emotions, but when I dive into my work, it it ultimately about reporting facts and allowing the reader to make the conscious decision of what to believe. Once I finish writing, however, it can be hard to hide from what’s going on. I just have to tell myself to keep living and to keep working hard.

SMP: Projects like yours are oftentimes targeted by institutions and organizations that feel threatened by positive perceptions of Palestinians. How do you combat the anti-Palestinian sentiment?

NH: It might be that PiA is not big enough yet but we have only received very minimal backlash for our reporting. Maybe once PiA grows in popularity, we will expect more anti-Palestinian sentiment. Nevertheless, my philosophy is that facts always trump trolls. When the backlash comes, I know to ignore it and to continue doing what I’m doing.

SMP: What are PiA’s long-term goals?

NH: We want to expand our reporting nationally. Eventually, we would want a beat reporter in the White House Press Room. It will definitely take hard work and many years, but the goal is to ask the tough questions nobody else is asking, the ones that raise legitimate concerns over the U.S.-Israel relationship and its impact not only on Palestinians but on the process of a establishing a just peace. And as I’ve already alluded to, PiA would ideally have the capacity to report on relevant news as it happens on the ground in each state and even within each community across the nation. These are big ambitions but they are definitely doable.

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