A freelance reporter who covered two looming issues in western Montana has netted one of journalism’s newest and biggest prizes.
Abe Streep came to Montana in 2017 and 2018 to write long-form pieces on a Syrian refugee family in Missoula for Harper’s magazine and the Arlee Warriors for the New York Times, and maintains ties with both circles.
He’s one of two freelance journalists to receive unrestricted cash prizes of $100,000 from the Heising-Simons Foundation, which announces its 2019 American Mosaic Journalism Prize winners on Tuesday.
The other is Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, who last year won a Pulitzer Prize for her feature profile for GQ magazine on white supremacist and mass murderer Dylann Roof. That piece and a profile on Los Angeles artist Henry Taylor were the basis for her American Mosaic prize.
“The whole thing is surreal, totally surreal,” Streep, 37, said Monday from his home in Santa Fe. “It’s an overwhelming feeling because it came out of nowhere. The other thing is, the other winner (Ghansah), like, writes circles around everybody. She’s just incredible, and I don’t feel I belong in the same ballpark with her at all.”
The recipients were determined by a panel of 10 judges from the likes of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, BuzzFeed News and NBC/Telemundo.
In a news release, the Heising-Simons Foundation said the American Mosaic Journalism Prize “recognizes journalism’s critical ability to foster greater understanding and aims to recognize and empower exceptional freelance journalists.
“It recognizes that in today’s journalism, freelancers are both vulnerable and valuable. Many journalists work without the support of an institution and with limited resources. And yet, some of the most important works of journalism come from freelance journalists who commit long periods of time to their subjects.”
Streep’s “The Last Best Place: A Syrian refugee family’s search for home” appeared in the June 2018 issue of Harper’s. He got interested in Missoula’s refugee resettlement efforts through the International Rescue Committee and Soft Landing Missoula while an adjunct professor at the University of Wyoming.
The 6,500-word piece told the story of Jaber Abdullah, his wife Heba, and their two young sons after their arrival in Missoula from Turkey in early 2017.
Streep said while he was working on that piece, the Arlee Warriors won the first of two consecutive State C basketball championships.
“I’m a basketball fan and my dad has been a basketball coach for a long time, so I was driving north and saw the sign that said Arlee had won the championship. That was the beginning of that story,” Streep said.
He lived for a time in Montana and kept reporting on both stories.
The 8,200-word Arlee story appeared last April, before the Syrian story was published in Harpers. It was called “What the Arlee Warriors Were Playing For: On Montana’s Flathead Indian Reservation, basketball is about much more than winning.”
It was about much more than basketball too, expanding into the issue of suicide on the reservation that the team addressed in two videos that evolved into the Warrior Movement.
“I don’t think I ever won an award,” Streep said Monday, while allowing that he’s uncomfortable talking about himself. “That story in the Times magazine, in terms of being exposed ... that felt like a large thing. But it’s also an immense, immense responsibility.”
Streep, a graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont, continues to return to Missoula “from time to time” to follow up his reporting in the area. He spent time in Missoula after college attempting to launch his writing career and cooking at the Hob Nob café. According to his online bio, he’s a contributing editor for Outside and a contributing writer for California Sunday Magazine.
“I will think very, very carefully about” what to do with the prize money, said Streep, who learned of the award recently. His wife, Stephanie, is also a freelance journalist in the broadcasting world.
“To be able to be a journalist right now is a blessing, because it’s a hard time to be a journalist,” Streep said. “I just want to try to keep getting better at my job, learning more and, you know, I hope that maybe I can call attention to the work of writers who I think are also doing a good job.”