2016’s most memorable stories
2016 turned out to be my most productive year as a freelance journalist yet, with stories filed from Illinois, Iowa, Peru, Poland, Curaçao, and beyond. Not a bad year. Thanks for following.
I visited Montserrat, a small island in the Caribbean that was ruined by a volcano 20 years ago this year and is still trying to reinvent itself despite decades of government mismanagement and stagnation. For The Guardian: ‘Ash to Cash’: Montserrat gambles its future on the very volcano that nearly destroyed it. Montserrat also was home to George Martin’s legendary AIR Studios. Martin passed away this year. Also for The Guardian: George Martin’s AIR studios is a symbol of Montserrat’s lost era as pop music hub.
Also in Montserrat, I talked to the scientists behind an ambitious plan to save one of the world’s largest amphibians: the mountain chicken. For National Geographic: The mountain chicken frog’s first problem? It tastes like…
In Iowa, I chronicled the decline of the Midwest’s small-town synagogues. The town of Keokuk, Iowa was once home to more Jews than Chicago—but urban consolidation and economic stagnation in many Midwestern towns has lead to population decline. In Ottumwa, Iowa, I found an old synagogue where one man prays alone every Saturday morning. For The Guardian: The last of Iowa’s small-town synagogues: seven members still praying.
I traveled to northeastern Poland — where bison and wolves roam a countryside peppered with Roman Catholic churches, Orthodox churches, synagogues, and mosques — to find out how Poland’s centuries-old Muslim minority was navigating their religion and nationality as their country lurches to the right in the face of Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis. For The New York Times: Poland’s Tatars feel uncertain as anti-Muslim sentiment grows.
I returned to Alaska, traveling north of the Arctic Circle for the first time to the town of Fort Yukon. The Arctic is warming faster than any other places on our planet, and the residents of Fort Yukon are among those who have a front row seat to climate change. I spoke to the town’s people and leaders about what they’ve seen change, and what is at stake. For The Washington Post: In this tiny Arctic town, dramatic warmth threatens everything.
I flew to the Peruvian Amazon to visit a Jewish congregation struggling to chart a future after a religious renaissance took many of its youngest members to a new life in Israel. Today, the Jews of Iquitos—the descendants of Moroccan Jews who followed the rubber boom up the Amazon—worship in a backroom synagogue just off the city’s main square. For The Guardian and reprinted in Israel, Slovakia, and the UK: Dwindling Amazon Jewish community keeps the faith despite religious exodus.
In North Dakota I trekked across the last vast stretches of unbroken grassland in the United States, meeting with scientists and conservationists to talk about the threat that is tearing up this vital ecosystem at rates equivalent to deforestation rates in Brazil. For The Washington Post: The enormous threat to America’s last grasslands.
While in North Dakota I also visited the site of North America’s first purpose-built mosque in the town of Ross. Lebanese homesteaders built a small masjid here in the early 1900s, and their Christian descendants maintain the cemetery and a small memorial to honor them. If you take a look at the Montrail County phone book, you still see surnames like Abdallah, Omar, and Juma. For The Guardian, this neat little feature: Little mosque on the prairie reveals a century of coexistence.
In Curaçao I visited one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Western Hemisphere—and their beautiful sand-floored synagogue. The story took a dark turn, though, when I learned that their centuries-old cemetery (probably the oldest Jewish cemetery in our hemisphere) has been all but destroyed by pollution from a nearby oil refinery. For Public Radio International: Pollution is destroying probably the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Western Hemisphere.
In Brooklyn, I visited the American diaspora of the Baltic Muslim community I visited in Poland. This small congregation maintains one of the oldest in-use mosques in the country. I met the youngest member of their governing board, Alyssa Haughwout, and heard about what she has in mind for the mosque’s future. For Public Radio International: They gave her the keys to the mosque—and now she wants to open it to the neighborhood.
And, of course, there was the election. I don’t do much political writing, but was excited to have the opportunity to bring the political awakening of St. Louis’ Bosnian Muslim community into the national conversation. For The Guardian: How Missouri’s ‘Bosnian vote’ could cost Donald Trump. With a discussion on Public Radio International’s The World.
From Anchorage, I wrote about how climate change is expanding the range of orca in the Arctic, allowing them to stay in northern waters for longer and preying on beluga. This means they’re coming into competition with indigenous communities, who also rely on beluga to survive. For Hakai Magazine: Killer competition.
In Texas, I visited one of the country’s few Spanish-speaking mosques for their first Cinco de Mayo celebration. Latino/a Muslims are a fast-growing community in the United States, and it was an interesting experience to see that these two identities are not mutually exclusive. For The Guardian: Latino Muslims at country’s only Spanish-speaking mosque: ‘Islam changed my life.’