So You Want To Be a Journalist? Kamil KaramaliWritten by Chelby Daigle
After working for three years as a reporter with CBC Ottawa, Pakistani-Canadian Kamil Karamali has returned to his hometown of Vancouver. Muslim Link interviewed Kamil about his career and what advice he has for aspiring journalists.
Tell us about yourself
I was born in Karachi, Pakistan into an Ismaili Muslim family. My father has a big family, 11 brothers and sisters. We have a community just of cousins and aunts and uncles. It was a great childhood. When I was around 7 or 8, my family decided to move out of the country. My family owns several businesses so my father and his siblings decided to explore a few options outside of Pakistan.
A lot of displaced Ismailis found sanctuary in Canada after Idi Amin sent anyone who wasn’t a Ugandan native out of the country. With a community such as the Ismaili community we are quite tight knit even on a global scale. So my dad thought that Canada would be a good place to come as there already was a community of thousands of Ismailis who were flourishing there.
My father found a business in Vancouver he was happy with and we chose to settle there. He bought this tiny little vacuum store in Abbotsford. When you are an immigrant family you don’t have many options, so my dad had to find a business that would allow us to stay in Canada longer.
We settled down in a fairly rural area of Langley. In my class there were no other Brown people. I felt like I was thrown into the deep end because I was coming from this very Muslim city like Karachi to rural Langley—it was a shocker. I didn’t fit in well at all. English was my second language as I grew up speaking Urdu. I knew English but my accent was way off. I remember one time, my family had just bought our first car in Canada, it was a mini-van, and I wanted to speak about this in Show and Tell. So I told the class “I got a mini-wan” because I couldn’t say my v’s. And the teacher was like “What?” and I kept repeating “mini-wan” and the class was just silent and looking at each other confused, and I broke a sweat and was about to cry. And then one of my classmates said “I think he is trying to say mini-van” and then everyone was like “Oh, okay.” Ever since then, I really tried to adapt. I tried to change myself so I could fit in. People tell me today that they didn’t realize I wasn’t born here because I have no trace of an accent or they say I seem really “white-washed” and I’m like “Ya, because I really tried to change myself”. I don’t mean this as a pity story but it did contribute to the person I am today.
But despite that, having a family that doesn’t all live in Canada helps me connect to my roots. Some are still in Pakistan and some are in Dubai. My whole family meets at least once a summer and there’s like 100 of us! So after meeting with my cousins I will know all of the latest Bollywood songs. Just this August one of my cousins got married and we did a full-out 15 minute Bollywood dance performance. So being with my family really keeps me in touch with my Indian and Pakistani roots and culture.
What made you interested in journalism?
So many people tell me that they knew from the age of 10 that they wanted to be a journalist. That’s not my story. For me it was more about trial and error. My family is very business-oriented. I went to Simon Fraser University in the Arts Program because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I wanted to try business courses to see if I would like it but I didn’t want to go into the Business program just yet. In my first semester, I took all business courses. Some I enjoyed and some I absolutely hated. It just seemed too boring for me and everyone I spoke to in the classes seemed very money-oriented. They were like “I want to be in business because I want to be a millionaire and build a huge empire”. Those weren’t my ambitions. I couldn’t relate to their goals. I just wanted to have a job where I could enjoy what I was doing on a daily basis. Then I took a few science courses like Biology and Physics. I even took a few teaching courses and Philosophy. I really tried it all. Finally, I tried Communications and it was just so diverse. Communications is really just an umbrella term for everything from Advertising, to Public Relations, to Journalism. It was just so eclectic; I felt that I finally found something that catered to my desire to learn about everything. So I majored in Communications. But right up until fourth year I didn’t know what area of Communications I wanted to specialize in. But right at the end of that year, I decided that Journalism would give me the best option for learning about something new every day.
Where did you go to study journalism?
I studied Broadcast Journalism at the British Colombia Institute of Technology. Their program is very hands on. It’s a more technical than theoretical program. It was a really intense two year program. You could easily spend 12 to 18 hours there working on assignments. It was the first time I ever tried coffee, then within a month I was on to energy drinks.
How did you get to work for CBC?
Part of it is being a good journalist but it is also about your networks. People won’t hire you just based on your credentials, at least from my experience. You need to show them that you are a human being with a real personality and charisma. You can’t get that across in a resume. In journalism, personality plays a big role, not even just on TV but also in print. And now as a journalist, you have to Tweet and people don’t just share articles on social media, you also have to make funny comments or sly remarks so you have to have a pretty fun personality. So when I interned at CBC Vancouver, I showed them I was an easy-going person, a team player, I could crack jokes but I could also be serious if I needed to be and I felt that they liked that combination. So I had good references from CBC Vancouver.
Tell us about your first real job in journalism.
I was a reporter based in Terrace and Kitimat, which are two isolated communities an hour apart from each other in northern British Columbia. I was based there for a little over a year. It was a different experience in every respect as it was my first journalist job. I made a lot of mistakes as I was essentially still a student but the great thing about small towns is that you can make those mistakes and people understand. A lot of my audience I would meet while grocery shopping and they would be like “Just an FYI, 30 years ago this happened so it wasn’t the first time like you said on the news.” Not everything is on Google for a town that small so it is hard to fact-check.
It was the place where I learned the most about First Nations communities. I didn’t have the chance to make many First Nations friends in Vancouver but a lot of my stories in Terrace and Kitimat were First Nations-oriented as there were a lot of protests against the Enbridge pipeline. So, in Terrace and Kitimat I got a sense of the realities of the indigenous community. It was great just having the opportunity to learn about their culture and their perspectives, seeing what the reserves are like, hearing their languages.
Tell us what is was like to come to CBC Ottawa.
I came in winter and I was not prepared! I didn’t even have the right kind of jacket. I had to learn how to adapt and shoot in the weather here. Even when I was travelling, I wasn’t factoring in the snow and ice so I’d arrive late.
But aside from the weather, Ottawa’s great because from my interactions it just feels like you can stop anyone in the street and have a very knowledgeable conversation. There is a hug demographic of university students and public servants here who are very politically savvy. And because people are friendly too you can easily have good conversations with strangers.
While you were in Ottawa, you covered a lot of stories. Do any of them stick out as special to you?
I really enjoy human interest stories because you can really delve into someone’s life and personality. There was one story where a father and daughter had never met. This girl was a huge fan of CBC and she told us that she was meeting her dad for the first time. My producer asked me if I could be there for that. I interviewed the daughter first and then I interviewed the dad who was waiting in a coffee shop. So I met them before they met each other. They were planning on meeting at the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill so I miked them both up and followed them and they just ran to each other and totally forgot I was there. There were just tears and crying. I was able to capture their excitement and anticipation beforehand and then just film this once-in-a-life time event.
You were put on a lot of local Muslim community stories, including the MAC Eid Festival. What was that like?
I know about my own branch of Islam very well but doing stories about other branches of the faith was a great learning experience. It’s such a big religion and there are so many different cultural practices even within the same branch just depending on what part of the world you are from. It was really cool to learn and interact.
Muslims in Ottawa have done a great job of getting a positive message out to media despite all of the negativity that has been happening. Our job as media is to draw attention to things that don’t happen very often, so you miss the stories about the everyday Muslim doing a good deed. But anything that is abnormal like a shooting or a terrorist attack is going to rise to the surface in media.
What was really memorable for me was that because the election was such a hot topic and the niqab was such a hot debate and Muslims played such a big role in this election, it was a good chance for Muslims to get a positive image out. There were at least two or three stories where I looked at the Muslim Vote. I covered the All Candidates Debate at the Ottawa Mosque. My job was to ask Muslims what issues they were most concerned about and the answers I got back were great. The people were so knowledgeable. And even chatting with Imam Sami Metwally who was so gung-ho about getting his community involved and hosting the debate. I feel that Muslims were able to get a really positive image out in media through these initiatives and I’m glad I was able to cover them.
I think that sometimes when Muslim stories came up, producers figured it would be easier for me to navigate it because I’m more familiar with the community. But even Muslims reached out to me on my Twitter account and they told me they felt more comfortable reaching out to me to pitch a story because I am Muslim. I find that interesting. I don’t think it’s true because reporters in the CBC Ottawa newsroom are great and will accept a diversity of stories but I understand that some Muslims find more trust with other Muslims. There is just that comfort level.
Do you feel that journalism plays an important role in the social cohesion of a society?
Yes. Seeing media in other countries like Pakistan, I feel that it is so swayed politically in my opinion. I was just recently in Pakistan and it seemed like each news station just picked a political party to support and all they air are news stories bashing the other political parties. It’s so dramatic it’s almost like a hate ad but in the newscast.
I think in Canada, at least at CBC, we try to portray both sides of the story. One thing I have noticed is that people who are more familiar with the type of media you see in Pakistan are surprised I put the other side of the story in my piece. But we have to do that whether it is David or Goliath. It is easy for people to root for David, but we have to include Goliath’s stance as well. My job is to try to find as much middle ground as possible. We are trying to create a space where the reader or viewer can come to their own opinion based on the facts.
What advice would you give to young Muslims interested in pursuing a career in journalism?
I feel like I’m still learning a lot. You are always learning in this industry. You need to have patience in every aspect. Patience in moving up, and patience in getting better. There is no formula for your day-to-day routine. I recommend learning as much as you can before you enter a newsroom because you really do need to know a little bit about everything—about life, about different cultures, about looking outside of your bubble. You need to be a generalist because you are going to cover everything from arrests, to parades, to homicides.
My experience at CBC is that they try to make the newsroom as eclectic as possible and try to represent their communities. If you have a big Muslim community you are going to need some Muslim reporters obviously. But even you need people from other faiths. I did a story about a church shutting down but I didn’t know the difference between a Priest or a Pastor. The Catholic Church has a lot of different bodies and roles and I didn’t understand a lot of them so I went to one of my producers who is Catholic and she broke it down for me. So, it is very helpful to have people from different backgrounds in the newsroom. Muslims shouldn’t be afraid that they won’t be hired because they are Muslim. Diversity is welcomed.
But I would also say that, because people might look to you as a resource on your particular community, you can’t just be in your own Muslim bubble. You need to make sure you have interacted with many other Muslim cultures or people outside your branch of the faith. In order to be able to do stories on your community, you need to know the different pockets and demographics of your community.
What are your thoughts on the future of journalism in Canada?
Journalism is transforming. Your average traditional journalism job used to be as a TV Reporter or a Print Reporter with a regular column. That’s changing more into freelance work for sites like VICE or Buzzfeed. One of the biggest news website I believe in British Columbia is Vancity Buzz, started as a blog. But now whenever something major happens my Vancouver friends are always posting Vancity Buzz links. They usually use very short punchy sentences and don’t often write long articles. Even with something like the CBC we are now going more into digital media and producing more web stories.
Your name is distinctly not a typical Canadian name. Has that ever caused you any problems as a journalist?
My name has been butchered so much! But as a journalist you meet so many people you don’t want to bother correcting everybody.
For my first name, it’s actually pronounced Kahmil, but if you say Kahmil it quickly turns into Camel and in my high school and university days that is what it would automatically turn into and no matter how much I would try to correct them, they couldn’t get it so they just started calling me Kam. I got called Kam so much people thought my name was Cameron. In terms of the last name, if people don’t see my name written for some reason they think my name is Karim. I think it is because I say my name so fast when I’m speaking. Or they pronounce my name as either Camileri or Calamari and then they think I’m Italian.
It’s been an interesting ride. But I’m proud of my last name, we have a big family and we are all proud of the name Karamali. My father is very proud of how much I’ve done and how I’ve grown as a journalist so he’s proud when he sees my name on TV, so I would never change my last name.
What does your family think now about your career in journalism?
They feel much better about it because I have a job. In my community, there is a lot of prestige with being a lawyer or a doctor. Journalist isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “prestigious” or “rich”. I love my family and they are very supportive, but they were also like “Well, you will always have the family business to go back to if this journalism thing doesn’t work out.” I’m hearing that less now. Also, now that I’m back in Vancouver and on CBC Vancouver, they have promised me they will be watching me on CBC, as they were usually CTV viewers.
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