Real Stories for Nonprofits: The Oregon Trail

Posted by | · · · · · · | Multimedia · Nonprofits · Video & Film

Zach Putnam is an award-winning filmmaker and producer based in Portland, Oregon. He has over a decade of experience telling stories that move people and has produced work for clients ranging from Adidas to Upworthy to the Nature Conservancy. Zach has also recently taught photo and video production at the University of Ghana and the University of Oregon. You can see more of his work at



Ahmed Al-Zubidi is a journalist, so he knows the potential power of storytelling. I think that’s one reason he invited me so warmly into his family’s life, even with my camera rolling.

This was in 2016 and I was a student in the multimedia journalism master’s program at the University of Oregon. As the American presidential campaign was heating up, the media coverage about Muslim refugees seemed to me to be sorely lacking in humanizing depictions. Instead, these refugees were reduced to numbers and vague threats to my country’s cultural fabric.

I decided I wanted to create a portrait of a Muslim refugee family in my own community to find out–and to show the world–who the real people are in these debates. A classmate  introduced me to Ahmed, who had applied for refugee status in the United States after several of his journalist colleagues in Iraq were murdered or kidnapped by terrorists. Ahmed’s son Mustafa remembers watching news reports on Iraqi television when his father’s boss was killed. “I got used to it,” Mustafa said. In 2014, Ahmed and his family moved to Beaverton, a quiet suburb of Portland, Oregon. The process for approving their application had taken seven years.

I was worried Ahmed would be uncomfortable with me filming his family. After all, I was asking him to put a lot of trust in my ability to tell his family’s story sensitively and accurately. But Ahmed did not hesitate.

“Of course,” he told me. “You can start right away.”

I spent the next few weeks visiting the Al-Zubidi family and documenting their move into a new, larger home. The kids loved to be filmed and as time went on, I realized I wanted to tell their story through the eyes of 10-year-old Mustafa.

After I turned the project in for school (and got an A!), the story was published by The Atlantic, Quartz and the Oregonian newspaper. That was great, but the most gratifying moment for me was when Ahmed called to tell me his new employer, Catholic Charities, one of the biggest providers of refugee services in Oregon, loved the video and wanted to use it in their ongoing fundraising campaigns.

I create videos for nonprofits and NGOs for a living, and I’ve made dozens, maybe hundreds of fundraising videos. I’m always telling my clients how important it is to have a good story at the heart of their messaging, but this experience really illuminated that concept for me. I created this piece purely as a journalistic storytelling exercise. There’s no “call to action” or mention of any organization, but it speaks so directly to the mission of Catholic Charities that it can function as a powerful fundraising tool for them.

This whole experience has reinforced my belief in the incredible power of story. I’ve been inspired to bring a more journalistic and story-based approach to all my client work, and I’ve found that both my clients and I are more happy with the results.


Zach submitted his story to NGOStorytelling through our submissions page. We’d love to see more of your video and photo stories about humanitarian issues and learn more about your personal experiences. Please share your work with us! 

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