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MSNBC host Ali Velshi chronicles his ancestors’ migrations across three continents


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. You might know our guest Ali Velshi from his work on MSNBC, where he's chief correspondent and a regular presence, hosting his own weekend show, called "Velshi," and filling in frequently for the network's primetime anchors. He also hosts the "Velshi Banned Book Club" on MSNBC and a podcast of the same name. Velshi has written a new memoir, and it's mostly not about his career in journalism. It's a remarkable family history, which begins in a village in India in the 19th century and winds over the generations through South Africa, Kenya, Canada, and eventually the United States.

His ancestors' travels were driven by powerful currents of history and its members encountered some notable figures on the journey. Velshi's grandfather, for example, could be found as a little boy riding on the shoulders of Mahatma Gandhi, part of a relationship that would have a lasting impact on the generations to follow. Velshi's book is a compelling narrative about a family in the Indian diaspora and a reflection on the meaning of citizenship in its many forms.

Besides his work on MSNBC, Velshi is a weekly economics contributor to NPR's Here And Now. He spent years reporting on business and economics and worked previously as an anchor and correspondent for Al Jazeera America, and CNN. His new book is "Small Acts Of Courage: A Legacy Of Endurance And The Fight For Democracy." Ali Velshi, welcome to FRESH AIR.

ALI VELSHI: Dave, thank you. And thank you for that great introduction in which you really captured the sense of the book.

DAVIES: Swell. Good. Well, let's get into some details. You know, you begin by recounting an experience that you had while covering the George Floyd protest. You want to just relate this to us, what happened?

VELSHI: Yeah, I'd been covering it since the day sort of after it had become news that George Floyd had been killed. And there was a lot of unrest, as we all know, particularly in Minneapolis, where it happened, because at first, no one was sort of held to account for it, and, you know, by the time I got there, there hadn't even been arrests. So there was a lot of back and forth between protesters and police. And I'd been covering it each night.

But ultimately, it was Saturday night. George Floyd was killed on a Monday night, Memorial Day, and I was there on Saturday night covering the remnants of the protest, a very peaceful march, basically, that was happening through the streets of Minneapolis, and suddenly police and national guard moved into the intersection in front of us and started firing what they call less than lethal weaponry - tear gas, flash bangs, and rubber bullets. And so most of the crowd cleared out, but we had gas masks, so we ended up closer to the authorities than most of the protesters were. And in the process of covering that they were firing toward the crowd and us, I got hit by a rubber bullet in my leg while I was live on television. And it was just - in addition to it being a sort of a dramatic thing to happen, it sort of just changed my view of the way we have to treat these stories and that there was something very wrong with the way things had been going.

And we're in it now. You know, one of the things I always thought about as a journalist is how we have a front seat to what's unfolding. But what I realized that night is that we're - it's more than a front seat. We're in the arena. And not just as journalists, as American citizens. So it was a remarkably eye-opening event for me.

DAVIES: Right. Now, I think most people would say, well, we don't want our journalists to be in a fight.

VELSHI: Right.

DAVIES: Maybe you should tell us a little bit more about the circumstances. I mean, there are, you know, a variety of situations that confront law enforcement officers in a situation like this. They can be in threatening situations. I gather this was not.

VELSHI: No, not at all. In fact, I can't underscore the degree to which I'd been there all week. So I knew the contours of the demonstrations. And certainly, two nights earlier, for instance, the police at the third precinct, which is where the police who killed George Floyd were based -.I mean, that was a real running battle between protesters and police. There were things being thrown back and forth, and Molotov cocktails. The police station ended up being burned down with the police having left. I mean, that was a violent confrontation. There was violence that week. But on this particular night, not only was there no violence, but there were no police in that area. These protesters were simply marching through the streets of downtown Minneapolis. There was no threat.

And I've covered protests for many, many years, and there are times when things get really hot between protesters and police. That wasn't that moment. So I was very, very surprised by it. And I think people who say we don't want our journalists in the middle of it are right. We don't try to be in the middle of it. In fact, I was two thirds of the way back. It's just that when they started to deploy tear gas, most people can't withstand tear gas. We have gas masks. So between a bulletproof vest, which I've never worn in this country prior to that coverage and a gas mask, which I've never worn in this country prior to that coverage, we were - we suddenly became closer to the police. So it was the police and us. And that's how we got into that confrontation.

But I will say, Dave, that our goal is to bear witness on behalf of those of our listeners and our viewers and our readers who cannot. So that's the reason why we are in these places in the first place, why we go to dangerous places so that we can tell you what actually happened, because subsequently, some authorities and the then-president of the United States misrepresented what happened that night.

DAVIES: Well, Donald Trump, who was president at the time, did think this was worth his own comment on it. Let's just listen to what he had to say about this.


DONALD TRUMP: I remember this guy, Velshi - he got hit on the knee with a canister of tear gas and he went down. He didn't - he was down. My knee, my knee - nobody cared. These guys didn't care. They moved him aside. And they just walk right through it - it was like - it was the most beautiful thing. No, because after we take all that crap for weeks and weeks, we take this crap, and then you finally see men get up there and go right to - wasn't it really a beautiful sight?


TRUMP: For law and order, law and order.

DAVIES: And Donald Trump commenting on the experience of our guest Ali Velshi when he was covering protests after the death of George Floyd. So what's your take on the president's take here?

VELSHI: Well, he did that several times. I was quite surprised the first night that he did it because people started texting me saying Donald Trump's talking about you at a rally. And I thought - and by the way, Donald Trump - I've interviewed him. I've known him for years. He knows how to pronounce my name, and he knows where I work. So that was just Donald Trump being Donald Trump. His take on that whole thing was actually substantially more dramatic than how it all went down. It was live on TV. I grabbed my knee. I used an expletive, and I said, OK, guys, I've been hit.

And you can see me sort of, you know, edging toward the side of the road to get behind a car so that this doesn't happen again and holding on to my knee. I didn't go down. Nobody came in and threw me out. But you heard the context there, that after weeks and weeks of taking all this stuff, we finally did it. This is what you call law and order. Again, we weren't interfering with police activity. And nor was what was going on in that city, as Donald Trump described. It was actually a relatively orderly march. So none of that was true, but it did come down to the idea that protest and, you know, things that are critical of the government are not to be tolerated.

And what we found out subsequently through discovery and a number of lawsuits that took place that night because a number of journalists were attacked and injured is that police had been talking about going after journalists that night. Now, I, to this day, don't know who shot me and what orders they were under and what they saw and whether they used a scope and knew that we were journalists because there were a team of us and we had a camera, and my cameraman was 6-foot-3 and then had a camera on his shoulder. So we were relatively easy to see. We did encounter police at another intersection as we were retreating. And at that point, we put our hands up, knowing how this was going to go and said, we're press. And somebody on the other side actually yelled out, we don't care, and they opened fire again. Nobody got hit the second time. So, you know, there was a certain je ne sais quoi that night about how police, particularly in Minneapolis, were looking at journalists.

DAVIES: So, how did this experience affect your reporting? Your shows afterwards?

VELSHI: Well, it made me understand that there was a narrative that was coming out, particularly after Donald Trump made his comments, that just wasn't true. That was a peaceful protest protected under the First Amendment. All protests are not peaceful. In fact, in that week, there had not been peaceful protests. But that the audience needs the true story about what's going on. And in that case, the underlying story that I write about in the book is that there were people protesting for something that they felt was very basic in terms of justice, the idea that a man was killed at the hands of police while being very obviously recorded on somebody's phone with impunity.

And at that point, it looked like with impunity. Obviously, Derek Chauvin and the others were convicted of murder subsequently. But that was many, many months later. In that moment, it felt like justice was not applied fairly to citizens. And it made me understand that - my parents had come to these shores 50 years prior to that after a very, very long search for democracy and justice, and equality and liberty and freedom. And I thought that fight was over. I definitely did not think of myself as being in any sort of front line of a battle for democracy. But that was actually a line. And democracy is something we all have to speak about and defend.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Ali Velshi. He is chief correspondent for MSNBC. His new memoir is "Small Acts Of Courage: A Legacy Of Endurance And The Fight For Democracy." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR and we're speaking with MSNBC chief correspondent Ali Velshi. He's written a new memoir, which chronicles the history of his family's migrations over more than a hundred years. It's called "Small Acts Of Courage."

So let's talk about this family history that you've shared with us. You know, your ancestry is Indian, though you never lived there. And, you know, for a long, long time, in many countries, you find classes of Indian merchants who've lived in many, many places, you know, the so-called Indian diaspora. Your ancestors came from a village in India in a province in western India. Gujarat, is that how we say it?

VELSHI: Gujarat. That's right.

DAVIES: Gujarat, yeah. You visited it as you were kind of researching this book. What kind of place is it?

VELSHI: Well, it's a remarkably prosperous province. It's the same place where the Indian prime minister comes from. That said, my family didn't come from the prosperous parts. They came from a little village, a little trading village in which farmers from the surrounding area would come in and trade their goods for things that would be sold to them, in many cases, by my family. So they were small merchants. You know, I grew up thinking they were businesspeople, but they were very, very small merchants. They had small storefronts.

But that said, they were prosperous, except that India was hit by several droughts in the 1800s. And countries can often withstand these things, but India had been denuded through colonialism. It was a very wealthy, productive country when the British found it, and it was a economically unsustainable country when the British left in 1948. So by the 1800s, my family just couldn't sustain themselves there. And like every migrating group of people, they got a letter from some friend who had gone to South Africa and had written back describing it as being a place where the streets were paved with gold. So my great-grandfather's brother, older brother, said, this isn't going to work. We're going to have to go somewhere else.

And he was the first one in the family, in 1893, to sail to South Africa in search of a better life. And ultimately, the whole family went over but for my great-great-grandparents and started a new life in South Africa, where I also thought they were businesspeople, Dave. But what I learned is they were people who had sort of pushcarts or, you know, like, little wagons in which, you know, they'd pack it with green groceries or dry goods and sell it door-to-door to people. Ultimately, they developed those into real businesses. But they started from scratch in South Africa in search of a better life after the drought in India forced them out.

DAVIES: Well, the family gets established in South Africa and they build businesses, I think, a grocery store.


DAVIES: And around this time, there was a young Indian lawyer who was from the same Indian province as your family. He then had the name of Mohandas Gandhi. He would later be Mahatma Gandhi. What was he up to in South Africa?

VELSHI: So he had arrived because he was a British-trained Indian lawyer and there were two Indians in South Africa who had a dispute with each other, and they'd hired lawyers. They were suing each other and one of them hired Gandhi because as an Indian, he would sort of understand the plaintiff to the case. And he would be a sort of a liaison between the actual official white lawyers who were fighting the case. Gandhi, of course, knew nothing about South Africa. So he buys a ticket to get him from the port where he arrives in Durban to Pretoria and gets on this first-class train, and of course, gets promptly kicked off because non-white people are not allowed to sit in the first class of a train. They didn't know that because he'd ordered his ticket by mail. And he didn't know it either.

Anyway, he just comes to fight this one case. And he ended up staying to fight the injustice, the racial injustice, in South Africa. At the time, he was no great radical. He just wanted the laws to be respected, and he wanted Indians in particular to have more rights than they were enjoying at the time. But he needed a bookkeeper because his law practice was going fairly well. And my great-grandfather needed a bookkeeper. And they both happened to share the same guy, also a Gujarati-speaking bookkeeper, who introduced them.

So they didn't know each other. Their accountant basically said, you know, you two should get to know each other. Gandhi lived in Johannesburg at the time. My great-grandfather lived in Pretoria. Pretoria is where the government was. So it's only about 45 minutes drive now. But back in the day, it was, like, a two-day journey. He needed an overnight. And when Gandhi would come to Pretoria to negotiate with the government, he would stay with my great-grandfather, and as such, the two of them became friends.

DAVIES: Right. So they were friends. I mean, they weren't political allies.

VELSHI: Correct.

DAVIES: And you write in the book how Gandhi's approach to activism changed over time from kind of a reformist, let's get laws enforced approach to something which was broader and deeper and we would come to know as his, you know, non-violence. And he decided to establish a community, a school, an ashram, in which people would be trained in, you know, the discipline that it takes and the patience and the commitment to undertake that kind of activism. And then he does this remarkable thing involving your great-grandfather, who he really knew just as a friend. Tell us what happens here.

VELSHI: Yeah. And I've done a lot of research, and I went back to the archives. There's no record of any political activism or involvement or opinion that came from my great-grandfather or people in my family at his level. So Gandhi and my great-grandfather are sitting around, presumably after dinner one night. And he explains to my great-grandfather that he frankly thinks that the Indians are weak, that nobody wants to rock the boat. Everybody understands that life's not fair, but, you know, they want to prosper in business, and they don't have the stomach to do the things it takes to fight injustice. So he wants to start this ashram, this commune, basically. And he asks my great-grandfather, if my - the man who was going to become my grandfather, his 7-year-old son, Rajabali (ph), could be his student at his ashram. And, you know, I don't have record...

DAVIES: And that means moving there, right?

VELSHI: Moving. He would live - it was a residential school. And my great-grandfather, I think, must have thought this was a terrible idea. He's a businessman who's finally found a bit of prosperity. And what he doesn't need is a big association with this rabble rouser and particularly to send his son to his school. So my great-grandfather musters up the only answer he can think of, and that is to say to Gandhi, who is a Hindu - he says, look. You're a Hindu. We are Muslims. I can't send my 7-year-old son to go live at your school. Who will teach him his religion? To which Gandhi responds, I will learn your religion and teach it to him, which, you know, took all the excuses away.

And my great-grandfather, who really did have affection for Gandhi and trusted him and liked him, agreed. And so my grandfather, at the age of 7, became Gandhi's youngest student. And, you know, it was a spartan place. There was no hot water. There was no meat. There were no beds. You had one blanket to sleep on and one to cover yourself with. You grew all your food. And you walked everywhere. And this little boy who was 7 years old was too - you know, got tired for all the walking they had to do, and Gandhi would put him on his shoulders and walk him into town to - you know, when they needed to buy supplies and things like that. So that's what happened to my 7-year-old grandfather.

DAVIES: Right. So your grandfather, at age 7, goes to live with Gandhi and these others at this ashram, this community. Do you know how long he stayed there?

VELSHI: Stayed there three years because the experiment started in 1910 and ended in 1913, after which Gandhi left South Africa, ironically believing that his work there had been a failure.

DAVIES: You know, to cast our eyes forward, I mean, you write that when you were growing up in Canada, I mean, in the middle of the 20th century, that you observed that your father - that is to say the son of this man who had spent these early childhood years in this ashran with Gandhi - that your father was someone who, you observed, was always very disciplined, always productive, that chores were a part of everyday life, that he - you know, that politics and building social and political communities - that in effect, this approach, this outlook, this patience and discipline and commitment to justice - this was the legacy of that time from Gandhi?

VELSHI: And I didn't register that growing up, right? I just thought my dad was a little bit unfun. You know, where I'd want to laze around and watch cartoons, which is what I believed people my age did, he said, well, if you've got time on your hands, you should do this, or we should mow the lawn, or we should - and I was like, I don't want to mow the lawn. I want to watch cartoons. But this idea of constant productivity and improvement - it extended beyond chores because our social activities were all political or civic activities. They were volunteers on every organization they could - you know, my parents could become involved in.

Now, part of that was the discipline that was instilled by my grandfather, his sense of every moment is a moment in which work should be done, productive work should be done. And the other part of that is that they had grown up in a country where by the color of their skin, they were not entitled not just to vote but to participate in civic activity without risk of arrest. So they get to a country like Canada, where it's like, I can do whatever I want. I can be part of this process. No one has told me and no law is written that prevents us from being as involved as we can be. And in my parents' view, that's the way it should be. And my sister and I grew up in a house where that was thought of as important. The news was thought of as important because it informed you about the decisions you needed to make. And then going out there into the world and being a civic participant was important.

DAVIES: We're going to take a break again. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Ali Velshi. He is chief correspondent for MSNBC. His new memoir is "Small Acts Of Courage: A Legacy Of Endurance And The Fight For Democracy." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. We're speaking with MSNBC chief correspondent Ali Velshi. He's written a new memoir which chronicles the history of his family's migration over more than 100 years, from a village in India to South Africa, Kenya, Canada, and in his case, the United States. In the book, he reflects on the influences of powerful historical forces and figures, including Mahatma Gandhi, who knew Velshi's grandfather. The book is "Small Acts Of Courage: A Legacy Of Endurance And The Fight For Democracy."

We were talking about your family having established itself in South Africa and really at the end of at the turn of the 20th century, and they stayed there for many, many decades, you know, living lives circumscribed by racial laws that imposed a lot of restrictions. And the family, though - they were very industrious and entrepreneurial. They built this baking company, the African Baking Company. ABC Baking, I think, came to be one of the largest commercial bakeries in the country, and it wasn't just a business, right? Tell us about its reach, its impact.

VELSHI: Well, it was one of the largest, as you said, commercial bakeries in the country. They baked, at their peak, 4,000 loaves of bread an hour. And the funds from the business were used in some cases to fight apartheid. My father's brother, who was a partner in the business, but was sort of more active in the anti-apartheid fight, would be traveling to various training camps and socialist meetings across Europe in the effort to overcome apartheid. Back in those days, it was Soviet Russia and its allies who were leading the fight against apartheid, because apartheid was actually being propped up by countries like the United States and the United Kingdom. And the government didn't like this agitation. In fact, my grandfather and my father would employ convicts, because in South Africa, you became a convict just by virtue of being arrested and not having, you know, the right pass to be in the right place. So everybody became a convict. They would arrest Black people, and the penalty would be, you know, five or 10 pounds or you go work on a farm. It was meant to be because of free labor.

Anyway, the family had been agitating for a long time, and into the late '50s and 1960, 1961, the government just decided to clamp down and make business harder for them on a weekly and then daily basis to try and drive them out of business.

DAVIES: I mean, there are fascinating details here. Like, you know, in many of these decades, it was illegal to sell a loaf of less than two pounds, I believe...


DAVIES: ...But a lot of the Black Africans could not afford that.


DAVIES: So they would cut it in half, in defiance of the law - right? - sell them smaller pieces.

VELSHI: Remarkable that that's an act of civil disobedience, right? But apartheid had such Byzantine, nonsensical laws. Like, why did somebody write a law that said bread has to be sold in no less than two-pound loaves? I mean, it's nonsensical. But some people just couldn't afford that. So my grandfather and my father would set out tables, and they would sell, you know, half a loaf, if that's what you needed. They would give bread away. They would go to court every Monday morning to bail out workers who had been arrested over the weekend, because arresting people in South Africa was literally a way to find labor for the White farms. So they were very, very active. It was part of that Gandhian ethos, and it was part of their civil resistance to try and fight aparthed.

But from the time that apartheid was implemented in 1947 until my family left in 1961 and much later, apartheid just got more draconian and worse every year. So it didn't look like they were moving the needle or improving anything all that much. They were just getting into a lot of trouble by the government.

DAVIES: You have to tell us about the yeast raids.

VELSHI: So yeast was a controlled substance in South Africa, because, again, apartheid was a ridiculous thing. The reason it was a controlled substance is because under the law, Black people were not allowed to consume alcohol. Now, everybody all through history who's wanted to consume alcohol has figured out a way to do it, and so people would make their own in these informal - and sell it in these informal bars called shebeens. Well, to make alcohol, you need a starter. To make beer, you need a starter and the starter is yeast. Bakeries had yeast. So police would raid my family's bakery to measure the records of how much bread was baked versus how much yeast was left in the fridge. And they literally - if there was a mismatch, someone would be in trouble. They would - armed police would actually show up at the bakery unannounced and conduct a yeast audit. So those are the kinds of things that they did.

And ultimately, they did go after my uncle, my father's brother, for this, sort of accusing him of being a yeast bootlegger. And I don't know whether that's true or not. I know that he probably believed that Black people like any other people, should be able to you know, drink the beer they want to drink, and that shouldn't be regulated by the government.

DAVIES: But life essentially became intolerable as the racial restrictions became more and more draconian. And after what, 60 years or so, in South Africa, they decided it was going to be time to move, to look for a new place.


DAVIES: Kenya looked like a good place. Why?

VELSHI: Yeah, the winds of change were blowing over the rest of Africa, not South Africa, because South Africa was not a British or a French or a Belgian or a Portuguese or Italian or a German colony. It was its own thing. The Africaners ran the place. The British had left.

The British colonies in Africa were all becoming independent. And my father had two sisters who had married people who lived in Kenya, so they felt they had a beachhead there, and they all wanted to leave in 1961. There was some question about whether the government would let them take the proceeds from their business. And so it was a long negotiation because they accused my family of being communists. And in fact, my dad's brother was a communist. And so they decided to leave. The government decided -they had to sell their business, not for what it was worth. But in the process of doing so, my dad started a bread war. He lowered the price of bread to the point that four of his competitors were taken out of business, and, you know, they went bankrupt. And ultimately, they destroyed the bakery and my family left to go live in Kenya, where they hoped they would have a brighter future.

DAVIES: Right. And they did leave. But really, literally almost on the eve of departure, your grandfather, the one who had lived with Gandhi as a youth, Rajabali (ph), who saw the bakery, which he had put so much of himself into literally being torn down...


DAVIES: ...What became of him?

VELSHI: The heart of a bakery is its ovens. And the ovens needed a bulldozer to be destroyed. So a week before - you know, very shortly before they left for Kenya, my father and my grandfather stood there and watched the ovens being bulldozed. My father said it's the only time he's ever seen his father cry. My grandfather was 58 years old at the time, and he was dead a week later. Ostensibly of a heart attack. My father thinks it was heartbreak. And he died at 58 thinking the entire mission had failed, the mission for civil justice, the mission for rights and liberty and the fight against apartheid, and measurably, it was worse the day he died than the day he was born. Ultimately, though, the book explains much came of the work that he put into it that he never realized.

DAVIES: Let me reintroduce you. We're going to take another break here. We are speaking with Ali Velshi. He is chief correspondent for MSNBC. His new memoir is titled "Small Acts Of Courage: A Legacy Of Endurance And The Fight For Democracy." He'll be back to continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with MSNBC chief correspondent Ali Velshi. He has written a new memoir which chronicles the history of his family's migration from India through South Africa, Kenya, Canada, and in Velshi's case, the United States. The book is titled "Small Acts Of Courage."

So, your parents needed a new home if they were going to - I mean, things looked pretty scary in Kenya and in East Africa as independence movements were in some cases targeting Indian merchants, like your parents. They had a big real estate business, as I recall, or a real estate business. They looked around and looked to Canada, a place so different culturally. How did it emerge as a good place to consider for a new home?

VELSHI: Well, two things happened simultaneously. They had a really great group of friends that they had developed in Kenya, a group of friends that existed across racial lines, which was fascinating to them. Because in South Africa, you couldn't really have - if you were Indian, you couldn't have Black friends or white friends. In Kenya, they had all of those kinds of friends. And some of their Black friends in government said in a very caring way, we're worried for your future. It wasn't a threat. It was a, we're worried about you. Things don't look great for Asians in this country. And at the same time, they had a friend who was a Canadian diplomat. And, you know, simultaneously, Canada had been doing the math and like most Western countries had realized they had shrinking populations or populations that were not replacing themselves well and they needed immigrants.

But if you're Canada, you're competing with the United Kingdom and the United States for immigrants. So they were really actively looking for people, including refugees or activists like my parents. So a Canadian diplomat almost forced my parents to fill out the forms to get their rights. They were apprehensive. They really didn't want to leave Kenya. But things were getting worse. Again, mostly in Uganda, not in Kenya, but it was spreading into popular sentiment in Kenya that was feeling very menacing.

And ultimately, my parents did get approval to go to Canada, and they left for Canada and started again. What they did find, though, because they did the same thing in Canada that they did in Kenya. They joined political parties, different ones. They went to meetings of different political parties to sort of figure out the system, and they tried to get involved in civic activity. And they were surprised to find out that definitely unlike South Africa, but even unlike Kenya, everything they tried or wanted to join actually did seem open to them.

DAVIES: You know, you mentioned that in 1972, Idi Amin, who was then the ruler of Uganda, decided to expel the Indian population there - I mean, many thousands of people - and that Canada stepped up and took 6,000. Explain what your father did - he was running this travel agency at the time - what role he played in welcoming those folks.

VELSHI: So two things happened at the same time. One is the thing that my parents left Kenya worried about actually ended up happening in Uganda, right? They expelled all the - Uganda was a neighboring country to Kenya. They expelled all the Asians, and these Asians, just like Kenyans, had been British subjects. So they thought with their colonial passports, they could get into the United Kingdom. Turns out that when you are a non-white holder of a British passport in a colony, your passport was coded differently. So the U.K. w as not all that welcoming to you. Meanwhile the Ugandans had just taken their citizenship away. So these people were literally stateless.

And so Canada decided this was the manifestation of this idea that Trudeau had had. OK, here's a bunch of people. They're available to us to be workers to come into our country. Let's see if we can get them in here. And my father joined the effort to patriate these people in Canada. So he would literally be - back in those days, Montreal was the big city in Canada. These people would fly into Montreal. They'd get on a train. My father would meet them at the train station in Toronto and as a volunteer, but working with the government, they would be there with what you needed if you showed up as a refugee - plans for housing, plans for food, language training if you needed it, vocational training if you needed it. It was a sense of, let's build this together, and it was a remarkable success for Canada, which now historically looks on the idea of taking immigrants in - refugees in, in particular - as a very successful thing. It ended up working very well. And by the way, many of these people who were kicked out of Uganda with nothing but the clothes on their back ended up doing phenomenally well and prospering in Canada.

DAVIES: You know, we've talked, and you write in the book, about how your parents inherited the values of your grandfather who had, you know, worked with Gandhi, you know, the work ethic, the commitment to helping others, building social institutions, fighting for justice. As you tell it, it seems that the young Ali Velshi, maybe a little less committed to all of them.

VELSHI: (Laughter) Yeah, I mean, 'cause it was all in the rearview mirror, right? They had been fighting all these things. There were great family tales, but now we lived in Canada. It didn't seem relevant. It seemed like what the old-fashioned people did in the old-fashioned countries. It was quaint. It was interesting. It certainly informed our decisions. Certainly growing up in the '70s and '80s in Toronto, South Africa was central to the news on a regular basis because apartheid had gotten that bad, and they were running battles in the streets in South Africa. But I didn't care that much.

Nor did I think of it as an ethos. As I said, I thought my parents just worked too hard, and I wasn't sure why we couldn't just have leisure time and why everything had to be a meeting and a committee that they joined. I didn't care all that much. But what I didn't realize is it was like a background app. It was influencing me the whole time, including the fact that the news was a family activity. You had to consume the news because you were discussing global affairs all the time, or at least domestic affairs all the time. And the way you got information about that was consuming news.

So I grew up in the back of my mind thinking, these news people - they're important. This journalism stuff is important. Now, as a son of an Indian immigrant family, discussing being a journalist is heresy. You know, I think my parents were hoping that I'd be a doctor.

DAVIES: Not enough prestige or money?

VELSHI: No. You're supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer and maybe you can be an engineer or something like that. But I was being influenced by the idea that information, accurate information, good information was important to making proper decisions in life. So I wasn't motivated by the politics the way they were. But I grew into it. I fell into it. I was in it all the time, and it started to influence me more than I actually understood it was influencing me.

DAVIES: Right. So you found you had a knack for, an interest in storytelling. So, you know, you get into broadcasting, kind of at the bottom, like everybody else does...


DAVIES: ...Find out you're good at it and move from one job to the next. You became the first primetime business anchor in Canada. Then you get recruited by CNN, come to the States. You spent, I guess, quite a few years there...

VELSHI: Yeah, it was 12 years.

DAVIES: Yeah. And then left for a job at Al Jazeera America.


DAVIES: Were you right - you got in the trenches and learned the tradecraft of serious reporting you'd been missing. What was it that changed you there?

VELSHI: And that was - not to belittle - I mean, I worked at CNN, had a great time, and I learned so much at CNN, but I was fundamentally a business anchor. And at Al Jazeera, there was much more of an emphasis on the reporting side of things. It was also a lot more - it was not just business the way I was doing it at CNN, which was sort of markets, you know, and that sort of activity. I was doing much more sort of economics and global stuff at Al Jazeera. But it was really - that operation, though it didn't last long in the United States, was really committed to a very high level of journalism, and I really, really appreciate the growth that I got out of it. And subsequently, when I joined MSNBC thereafter, my boss at MSNBC was the same person who was my boss at CNN. And she said to me at one point - she said, I'm not sure you could have achieved what you've achieved, you could have gotten to the point that you reached as a journalist without having taken that break, without having left CNN for a few years to sort of sharpen my skills.

So yeah, it sort of took me to a new place which coincided with some very, very big changes in American politics because I literally joined MSNBC after Al Jazeera closed a week before the election of 2016.

DAVIES: You know, I think it's certainly an unhealthy thing for a democracy to have so many citizens who are in information silos where they're getting all of information from one, you know, very committed...


DAVIES: ...Political perspective.

VELSHI: Yeah. Yeah, I agree with you on that.

DAVIES: Have you got any solution for this?

VELSHI: Triangulate - triangulate your information. I have friends who I know hold particular political views, conservatives or liberals. But they go out of their way to listen to other things because what you'll learn is, oh, what would be interesting is if you heard a particular story from different perspectives, right?

DAVIES: I couldn't agree more. Yeah. Yeah.

VELSHI: But what it'll do is tell you, that's weird that this network didn't cover that story at all. Is that story actually true? Does it exist, or is this just opinion?

I think in the same way that a cell phone knows where you are because it pings three towers, you should ping three towers for your news. You should have different sources. That's the answer. Consume more information. And on the other side, Dave, we do have to become more critical consumers of information. I think we're losing that skill, and that worries me. But that, I think is for a younger generation. I think we can teach our kids to be critical consumers of information, and hopefully they can discern the difference between news and nonsense.

DAVIES: Well, Ali Velshi, thanks so much for speaking with us.

VELSHI: Dave, thank you very much. I really appreciate your time.

DAVIES: Ali Velshi is chief correspondent for MSNBC. His new memoir is "Small Acts Of Courage: A Legacy Of Endurance And The Fight For Democracy." Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new movie "Hit Man," directed by Richard Linklater and co-written with its star Glen Powell. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL EVANS TRIO'S "MILESTONES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.