Abdi Roble and Tariq Tarey
Interviewed at Zencha Café, Columbus by Sandra Grady
30 July 2011

The Somali Documentary Project is the brainchild of Abdi Roble and Tariq Tarey, refugees from Somalia who make their home in Columbus. Roble was born in Mogadishu, and moved to Saudi Arabia in 1985 to study, then to the Washington, DC area in 1989, where he began to acquire English. By 1990, he moved to the Columbus area, which became home. He arrived planning to do a degree in Psychology at the Ohio State University, but when he found a camera at a flea market in Columbus, he purchased it and began teaching himself photography and working at a camera store, where he gained considerable mentorship. He became a free lance photographer for The Columbus Dispatch, which gave him the opportunity to travel, exhibit, and sell his work.

Tariq Tarey, meanwhile, was born in Mogadishu and left when the state disintegrated in the early 1990’s. He moved first to Damascus, then to San Diego as part of the asylum program. He moved to Columbus in 1997, as part of the large Somali migration to Columbus that began around that time. Unfolding as it was in his own backyard, Roble began documenting it on film. In 2001, Tarey also found a camera at a flea market and began developing his skills in photography. After some initial frustration, he met Roble at the camera store, and began increasing his photographic skills. At the same time, he worked for Jewish Refugee Services, organizing their microfund program for Somali refugees.

Both men saw the need to document the Somali diaspora they were part of, but the project was daunting. They were introduced to Doug Rutledge a visiting scholar at Ohio State University who became their writer. The goal of the project is to document the Somali diaspora worldwide, educate the hosting communities and to advocate on behalf of the refugees. Not only is the scope large, but their work falls somewhere between journalism, art, and anthropology, which makes it difficult to find funding. They began working anyway, using film to shoot, and processing it in Roble’s basement. One after another, they take on projects that are of significance to the Somali refugee community, looking for topics that will bring their issues to the forefront and sustain advocacy work on behalf of the refugees. They find funding for each project, and pursue contacts within the worldwide Somali community, so that they can take their cameras and live where the story is until they have enough material to tell it to people outside the Somali diaspora. They have worked in Ohio, Minnesota, California, Maine, Greece, Malta, Germany, as well as in Dadaab refugee camp in north Eastern Kenya.

They have received funding for their work from the Ohio Arts Council, Arts Midwest, Greater Columbus Arts Council, McKnight Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, The Twin Cities International Elementary School Minnesota International Middle School, Ubah Medical Academy, Puffin Foundation West, individual support and the Somali diaspora worldwide. One example of their work is a book they published through the University of Minnesota Press, The Somali Diaspora, A Journey Away, in which they documented the journey of one Somali refugee family from Dadaab refugee camp and followed the process of migration with them as they waited to leave the camp, then moved to Anaheim, CA and ultimately to Portland, ME. This project allowed them to raise money to build a school at Dadaab that educates Somali young people growing up in the camps. They have also produced journal articles, a documentary film, and have delivered lectures and teacher training at universities, mosques, churches, businesses and schools. Both agree that the work is about public advocacy, but the quality of their work moves it into the realm of art.

In addition to their work on the Somali Documentary Project, both Roble and Tarey pursue opportunities to create and show their work individually. Roble has shown his work at the Riffe Gallery in Columbus, Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, the Columbus Museum of Art, the Bates Museum in Lewiston, Maine, the Weisman Museum of Art in Minneapolis, the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, the National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago, Chile, and plans to show his work at the Open Society Institute in New York in the autumn of 2011. Tarey was part of the Forlorn in Ohio exhibit, which travelled in Columbus and Dayton. Some of his pieces from it are now part of the permanent collection at the Columbus Museum of Art. His work has also appeared at the Northwood Art Space at the Ohio State University, and the MPX Gallery in Clintonville.

The two are currently trying to establish an archive to house their work, as it is a record of one of the largest diasporas of the 20-21st century. They are also trying to produce a documentary with WOSU, the Public Broadcasting Company of Columbus, to introduce Somali families to their Columbus neighbors.

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