Backpack Journalism at Creighton University is a collaboration between the Theology Department and the Journalism, Media, & Computing Department. It came about because of a theologian interested in social justice and filmmaking and a journalist and an artist interested in filmmaking and social justice.
Each summer, a small group of students travels to a community in search of a story. Led by professors Dr. John O’Keefe, Tim Guthrie, and Carol Zuegner, the students immerse themselves in the communities, interviewing, filming, recording, and writing. When they return to Creighton, they take the stories they have collected and develop them into a short documentary film. The Backpack Journalism documentaries have been accepted at several film festivals, including the Omaha Film Festival. The class has traveled to such far-flung places as the Dominican Republic and Uganda. In 2014, they will head north to Bethel, Alaska.
On Saturday, our group went on an interesting adventure. We followed a soft-spoken Quaker man, whose white hair was longer than mine, into the desert in order to gain a better perspective on what migrants go through on their journey north. Our fearless leader, “Lil John” as we called him, took us under barbed wire fences, over walls of rock, and through uneven rocky brush lined with heavily thorned desert plants under the early morning desert sun. I went through 4 bottles of water.
As we moved from the cattle path to the migrant trails, the reality of where I was didn’t really hit until crawling under the second barbed wire fence of the day. While brushing myself off on the other side, someone pointed out a discarded sweater. It looked like it used to be white, but was torn, weathered, and caked with dirt, turning it a stained dark brown. It appeared a migrant had discarded it right before crawling under the barbed wire we’d just come through.
As the trail continued, I noticed the occasional rusty can littering the sides of the trail. After a while, we reached an opening in the valley trail. A small shrine had been erected out of a natural opening in the side of a small cliff. A tree branch to the right of the shrine had gallons of water hanging from strings with messages of prayer and good will written across them in Spanish. On the ground lay several more gallons of water, as well as cans of beans. The shrine itself was decorated with candles, crosses, and images of St. Mary.
It was an incredibly surreal place to see in the middle of a trail that meant death and pain for so many. In the midst of illness, death, injury, and pain that lines this journey for so many, there is a small ray of hope and comfort. Ironically, that aid is provided by a group of activists from the very same nation that at once draws and rejects people. The same country that hunts these migrants down on this journey, also produces people who aid them on the way.
If I’m being honest, I didn’t know what to think about this juxtaposition. I guess it reminded me the more positive aspects of The United States’ system after two weeks of feeling frustrated by my country’s continuous blunders. Out of all the backwards policy, the ability and the choice to help people in need still remains.