Now What?

Last night, I went out for dinner in the Old Market with a few of my close collegiate friends. Our outing was a bit of a momentous occasion for me. Here I was, post-Africa, away from the empathetic fold of my Backpack Journalism family, about to reconnect with the friends I hadn’t seen since the end of spring semester, and by extension, the Creighton community I had left behind in order to seek out global relationships and bear witness to human suffering. On paper, this reunion was a litmus test for my reintegration into young American society – or at least, proof of my capacity for camouflaging with what I like to call “former normalcy.” I recognized that my companions might not be up for any challenging conversations or personal revelations about what I had experienced in Uganda, and so I was determined to resume our friendships with patience and an open mind. If push came to shove, I was even willing to pretend that I hadn’t spent the last several weeks battling guilt, depression and disorientation over the trauma I was exposed to on the margins.

But of course, despite my carefully laid designs and premeditated persona, I wasn’t able to mask my ruined self. I suppose I haven’t yet absorbed the lesson that “man plans and God laughs.”

As I’d predicted, nobody asked me about my trip beyond the politely superficial “How was Africa?” Though I knew it was coming, that question caught me completely off-guard. How could I even begin to effectively articulate the emotional rollercoaster, the raw humanity, the transformational spiritual journey that was Africa? How could I possibly condense such a monolithic, life-changing experience into a precise, bite-sized narrative for people whose inquiry was not born from genuine interest, but instead out of obligation to acknowledge that lumbering elephant in the room? We asked only to show you that we noticed your absence, but we hope you don’t bring down the mood by rambling about injustices from across the globe that we had no part in, understand?

So, I mumbled a few vague sentences about Backpack Journalism, half-hoping somebody might take the bait and pry for a deeper response. Nobody did.

For the rest of the evening, my friends chattered about budding romances, academic victories and summer blockbusters, while I found myself drifting further away from the discussion and into my own bleak thoughts. I couldn’t stop internally labeling their weekly news and drama as trivial. Whenever a friend revealed the pivotal turn they’d taken with their significant other or a mild blip from their daily routine, my mind wandered back to the harsher moments in Africa.

“Did you hear that so-and-so are dating now?”

Girls as young as twelve-years-old are being married off to men in their thirties or fifties because parents only see their daughters as wealth. Sometimes, relatives kidnap these girls from school or threaten them at gunpoint because they’ve already eaten the dowery of cows. 

“I needed to stress bake today, but I couldn’t because I didn’t have any eggs.”

Refugees stand in lines for days to receive their monthly rations from food distribution sites, even though the grain they’re given is rotten and practically inedible. If they forget their registration cards or miss the distribution days, the chances are extremely high that they’ll starve to death. Already, the rations aren’t enough to prevent the children from starving in the settlements. 

“I’m so sick of our country’s divisive politics!”

The rebels and government soldiers in South Sudan are beating, maiming, and killing innocent people without discrimination. We met a refugee whose house was bombed by soldiers because he was neighbors with the opposition leader. He is only one of the 1.4 million  refugees who fled into Uganda after civil war broke out in South Sudan. 

I knew I wasn’t being fair. I knew I was choosing to be the downer friend. But I couldn’t staunch the feelings of isolation welling in my heart. Surrounded by the people I loved and valued as instrumental characters in my college experience, I felt utterly alone.

After my friends dropped me off at my apartment, I did the only thing I can think of doing when I’m feeling upset and profoundly lost: I called my mom.

I don’t know what it is about mothers, but they must possess divine powers because they always say exactly what you need to hear. Mom is no exception. I swear, she’s equipped with a sixth sense that registers my thoughts before I voice them (or become conscious of their existence). Sometimes, I think she knows me better than I know myself.

After listening to my frustrations over the phone, Mom told me that she’d suspected I would feel sequestered from my friends upon returning home.

“You just got back from one of the most eye-opening experiences of your life, and as you said in your blog, you’ve been ruined because of it. There’s going to be a cognitive divide now between you and the people who haven’t taken the opportunity to explore what the world has to offer beyond sightseeing. But that’s also just a fact of life; our personal histories are filled with unique adventures, tragedies, and junctures that separate us from one another. The thing you have to remember is that while you’ve lost some of the innocence you had before, you’ve also gained access to a special community of individuals who understand exactly what you’ve been through.”

She is absolutely right. As much as I feel disconnected from some of my American associates, I have also become strikingly close to the Backpack Journalism team. We’ve formed a rare bond with one another, an unparalleled kinship that can never be severed by time or circumstance. I’ve also developed a mutual understanding with people I’ve never spoken to, friends of my parents or extended family members who have done missionary work in Africa, or who have left the comfort of their homes for service on the margins. These acquaintances have been with me throughout this journey, covering me with love as I’ve endured a suffering they know, leaving me encouraging messages and reassurances that I am not alone. We are in this together.

Mom continued.

“So, you’ve witnessed social injustice and trauma in a way you never have before. What are you going to do now?”

What am I going to do now? There’s the million dollar question.

Actually, I’ve already given this question a lot of thought, even before we finished wrapping our film in Uganda. In my first blog, I explained that I felt compelled to bear witness for the people who have been pushed aside to the margins; I had a growing fire for providing a voice to the voiceless. Now that I’ve reached the other side of Backpack Journalism and become cognizant of the real emotional toll witnessing presses on your soul, have I been scared away from pursuing this kind of work? Has reality proved that I’m not strong enough to be present with people who are suffering?

The answer requires me to be brutally honest with myself. And I’ve realized – after letting the question settle for long time in my mind and my heart – that I have, without a doubt, found God’s calling for my life.

I am a storyteller. I am a journalist. And I am meant to tell the stories of those who have been forgotten by this world.

After earning my Bachelor’s degree, I plan to return to the margins as soon as I can. Whether that looks like joining Jesuit Volunteer Core, taking on a journalism fellowship, or discovering my own means, I’m dedicating my life to being with the people who need help most; to utilizing my gifts as a writer to restore their human dignity; to show marginalized individuals that yes, your story is important and you matter.

I also feel like such a response is my spiritual gift. Throughout our Backpack Journalism expedition, we asked our interviewees to share how mercy manifested through their work with refugees (Pope Francis called the Church to a mission of mercy and compassion in 2016, and as Jesuit-educated scholars, we were interested in seeing how people translated his message into action). From its basic definition, mercy means showing compassion or forgiveness toward someone rather than exacting punishment or harm against them. But mercy also means having sensitivity toward others’ suffering and willingly giving yourself to attend to their needs. I believe that such mercy is possible through God’s guidance and my compliance, and that Christ has called me to a lead a life of sacrificial love for others.

When I shared my newfound resolve with Mom, part of me expected her to object. After all, I am her only daughter and I am essentially going into the danger zone, committing myself to a potentially treacherous lifestyle for the sake of witnessing. I’d completely understand if my parents were uncomfortable with the risk (although, I would still pursue such journalism even if they were adamant about me staying away from world crises).

However, her next words were the most empowering thing she has ever said to me:

“Isabelle, I believe that this is what you were meant to do. God’s given you a gift, and you’re using it for His works. Wherever you choose to go, whatever story you decide to pursue, your father and I support you.”

Backpack Journalism has finally come to an end. We left, returned and worked hard to create a documentary worthy of telling the refugees’ experience. We’ve grown so much through this program, and I hope this program has grown through us.

I concluded my first blog with Isaiah 6:8 as a way to open my heart for the experiences God would give me. He sent me, and it was the most important work I have ever done in my life. Now, I am ready to continue it.

Send me again, Lord. Send me again.

What I’ve learned (the three big take-aways):

  • The world is a terrible place- suffering seems inevitable, and it’s so prevalent in Africa. The fact that people can live at this level of poverty across the world from us is incredible, and so confusing to wrap my mind around. Why does this sort of suffering still exist, and how is it excusable? I think that experiences like this really put into perspective how little the world has improved, and how the majority of the world really is suffering even while we are comfortable.
  • I’m still hopeful- I still think there is a lot of fundamental good inside human beings, and I hope for the world to become a better place. There is a lot of terrible humanitarian needs that aren’t being met in Africa, but there are people who are trying to meet those needs, and are doing so even with so much stopping them. I don’t think
  • I kind of enjoy film making, and should really try to do it more often- I’ve always tried to avoid taking pictures on trips since I feel that it takes me out of the experience, but sometimes when I had a camera I felt I was almost getting more. I was more actively looking for what was happening and more present because of that. Also, it means that I can show people what was happening much easier than just explaining it to them.

Getting back

While we were in Uganda, toward the end of the trip we would often mention how we wouldn’t be able to process the trip until after we got back. Interviewing, trying to get b-roll, it was stressful, it took time, and often made us less present in events then we would have liked.

Transcribing, then reading back and trying to organize the story for our documentary has really been the processing. There are many interviews that I wasn’t around to listen to, people whose stories I wasn’t around to hear. There were images and things that I wasn’t around to capture. Coming back, I’ve been able to see these things, along with review what I already knew.

There’s so much.

Lewi, Sr. Rebecca, the girls at St. Mary’s, and others I never got to hear their full stories. I had heard the spark notes version at best during the trip, but coming back to transcribe them I learned of the senseless bombings and killings in Uganda, of the plight of young women and child brides.

I had shot b-roll of a guard understanding that he was important at the school, but understanding little else about it. He had seemed a little suspicious with us there, and generally like he didn’t want us to be there bothering him. I remember leaving feeling a little confused to why we needed to bother him.

I found out while transcribing Sr. Rebecca that men commonly came to the school and posed as relatives of the girls so they could get the one they had bought as a child bride. I found out that some of the girls had specifically said that the presence of this guard helped them to feel safe. I found out that men had even showed up that morning and had been turned away.

It made a lot more sense why we were bothering him after that.

The entire process of editing has helped to bring context and understanding into my experience of Uganda, and it has also helped to put pressure on the necessity to make sure that others will be able to understand this experience.

It will be interesting to see how we can come down to do that in a 20 minute film, and if it will truly help people to understand and respond in a way that’s appropriate.

I feel weird

It’s been a weird return to the United States. The first news that I received after plugging in my phone at the Minneapolis airport was that my grandfather had died early that morning. In a lot of ways, my experience since has been trying to make sense of two tragedies: The larger humanitarian crisis happening in Uganda with the refugees and the stories I had heard from them, and my own more personal tragedy with the death of my grandfather.

Both of these events really deserve to be looked at separately. There is nothing that should link them besides my timing and proximity to them. They are independent tragedies.

Yet, it’s impossible for me to separate them. In processing my grief with the one, the other always found its way in, forcing me to process both almost together. That’s why I feel I need to talk about both together, and don’t think I can simply explain how I’ve felt since my arrival back in the United States.

I know that I’m nowhere close to having processed either and will probably spend a lot of time thinking about this experience throughout the rest of the summer.

Ultimately, the best way I can put my feelings right now is that I feel weird. There’s some guilt, lots of sadness, a little bit of disillusion. Guilt, for where we’ve left countries like Uganda, for not having been there at the end of my grandfather’s life. Disillusioned with death, with the capacity of humanity to do good, and whether if there is that much good.

We often talk about reducing the suffering of humanity. Many of the places where Christian theology intersects with politics and sociology tends to focus on ways of making a so called “Kingdom of God.”

Yet, it’s difficult to think about an end to suffering when it’s so prevalent in life, or to even imagine a place in which it ends. In Uganda, suffering is prevalent anywhere that you look. In the United States, we have done a lot to reduce suffering, yet it would be hard for me to say that my mother or grandmother or the rest of my family wasn’t suffering. It’s disheartening to think that despite all we have done, there is still prevalent suffering here, and that there is virtually nothing we can do about this suffering. Death remains inevitable, and the people that are left behind after will always feel the passing.

Refugees

Throughout the trip, I have been surprised by the refugees.

There definitely is no right reaction to having to leave one’s home and start a new life. Yet, the refugees have been so much different than what I expected.

I almost expected there to be more displeasure, and there is (I don’t want to make it seem as though I’m downplaying how terrible the refugee crisis in Uganda is), but often I found there was much more joy then I would have ever expected.

The church that we went to at the settlement was one the most joyous places I’ve ever been inside. Even though it was nothing more than a couple of sticks with a tarp, there was so much excitement and energy inside it that I found myself quickly forgetting where I was.

People were much more willing to smile or to wave at strangers as they passed then anyone in the United States were. There was more openness, more willingness to reach out.

The children had no fear. They would run with us as we took shots in villages, watching us film and playing with each other. They would wave at our bus or try to run with it as we went passed them.

Lewi, smiling as he showed us his house and family, Kizaza with all of his charisma talking of his music, the girls at the school with their passion and pride.

Yet there is always pain. Lewi told horrific stories of bombings and senseless killing, of sadness that he would never be able to go home. Kizaza was separated from family and lost everything while trying to flee the Congo. The girls at the school still are struggling, with threats of child marriage and a culture that doesn’t give them the choice they deserve.

Outside the church at the settlement, we walked through a village of refugees. For a short while, I tried to get footage of a girl, probably in her early teens, working on making a pungent liquid. The person who was guiding us through the settlement later told me that she was trying to make alcohol to sell. Others mentioned that this was often one of the few things that was easy enough for children to produce and sell, and was commonly something done by orphans.

She still smiled at me as she was working.

Flippin’ Tables

When we were at the South Sudan-Uganda border, a few of us went up to the road to film refugees as they crossed the border and walked to the  refugee receiving center.

Isaac, one of the directors at JRS, came up with us, and decided to talk with some of the vendors while were shooting. While he was at a money changer, I decided to try and sneak in to find out a little bit about what seemed to be a lucrative business in this part of the country.

While vendors tend to line the streets throughout Uganda, with store fronts set up by various citizens with just about any product that they could get access to, there had been a clear change in products when we got to the border. The products got a little less random and more focused towards a specific category. Everything was focused towards people who had left quickly, bringing only necessities with them. They were the things people would need when they arrived in a new country, and would need prominently, before they could replace the rest.

The most prominent of these needs was currency. The South Sudanese would need to replace all of their money before they could buy other products inside Uganda, and nearly everything on the road at this point, this close to the crossing (except for the odd poster salesman… whom Isaac had bought a number of informative wall hangings from while we were shooting. We were confused too) was focused on exchanging currency.

When I was talking with Isaac and the money changer that he had gone to, they attempted to show me how much the difference in exchange rates were. The money changer pointed to a single Ugandan bill, then taking a wad of South Sudanese cash said that the two were equivalent. Isaac emphasized the refugees weren’t getting a good exchange rate.

At the receiving center and on the road, it was obvious that these refugees weren’t carrying much with them. There were no large items that they could sell, there wasn’t much food, no animals. For the most part, all they had were there families, and whatever close they on their back. These people did not have much.

Yet, when you looked at the tables of the money changers, it was filled with South Sudanese money. My mind wondered looking at these tables. How many life-savings were on those tables? How many people had left their homes, leaving nearly everything behind, only to lose the little they had left to these money changers?

In Matthew 21, Jesus flips the tables of money changers in the temple, telling them they have turned the house of worship into a “den of thieves” as he chases them out with a knotted rope. When you look at these people who have been taken advantage of in this way, it isn’t hard to understand why Jesus would react like this.

Moving Forward

The experience as a whole, ever since we met the first time even during the school year right up to the last time we met on Thursday at John’s house, has been an experience I’ll certainly never forget. There have been an innumerable amount of moments during this journey that will likely have a lasting impact on me and the way I carry myself in my everyday life. This experience was one that gave me a sense of fulfillment.

For starters, I had absolutely zero experience or confidence in myself dealing with camera settings or video editing. After this project, I’ve armed myself with at least some knowledge of how to go about not only filming things in the first place, but also organizing the video afterward, which has also shown me that I really enjoy it. Running the interview questions were also a task I really enjoyed doing.

Being able to see all the different aspects of Uganda that we did was also something that I’m grateful for. From the city conditions to churches to the schools and the extensive open space, the experience of truly surveying what this country was like and how it was different from what I know helped me form a better perspective of the world. Like I mentioned before, I had never been outside the country farther than Canada or Mexico. This trip did a lot for me in terms of both affirming my thoughts and also changing some of my views on what a region like Uganda would truly be like. Visiting many different areas of the country and being able to see it was special.

While I had so many experiences and was armed with a lot of knowledge during our trip, it can be hard to figure out how to do something with what I saw and heard. After much thought, I believe the best thing I can do back at home is involve myself with refugee situations, and come ready to discuss the topic backed with facts. Refugees are often a hot topic in the United States for obvious reasons. Getting to not only see but talk with just a few of them in Uganda gave me a first-hand look at where they’re coming from, what their goals are, and what their lives are really like. I owe it all to this trip. I’ll never forget it.

Empathetic for Life

6/28/18

This is it, my very last blog post. These blog posts have been a way for me to force myself to reflect and share some of the things I have learned through this experience. An important aspect of the last five weeks is that it does not end here. It does not end when our film is ready to be shared. This experience has ignited in me a newfound passion and anger for the violation of human rights that I witnessed. It is very easy to feel helpless in a monumental situation such as a refugee crisis. What can I really do? I can donate money, I can lobby, I can spread the word. But there is something infuriating that there is little I can do for the people that I met, shook hands with and listened to. When I think about this, I try to be optimistic. I try and remind myself that there are things I learned that I will take with me the rest of my life. That is something I can do. Take this experience with me wherever I go, and make sure to share it.

My biggest takeaway from this experience is the difference between sympathy and empathy. Before leaving for Uganda, I thought that I knew the difference. Definition wise, I did. Feeling wise, I did not. It is easy for Americans to view conflict crises and issues of poverty and hunger in less-developed countries as “too bad”, a statistic or even “just the way it is”. It feels so far away and if it is not directly affecting someone then it is not a priority. However, someone may feel heartbroken watching a documentary or hearing statistics of deaths in a year. This is what we know as sympathy. Feeling bad for someone. Having a common feeling but still feeling pity for someone. I won’t lie, I had sympathy for South Sudanese refugees before I left for Uganda. Once I got there I realized that I did not have to put up a barrier of “me” and “them” and feel bad for them. Yes, these humans have gone through hardships that I could never even imagine. But once I broke down this barrier and opened up my heart to them, that was when the point of this project made the most sense. I was allowing myself to be empathetic and really put myself in the shoes of these men, women and children. I was able to learn historical context about the different conflicts and I was able to ask questions about it. I was able to hear firsthand accounts of humans who were forced to become refugees. I was able to see the lifestyles for these refugees. I was able to see the amount of people in Uganda who fight and advocate for humans, in general. I was able to see the importance of family for Ugandans and South Sudanese, alike. I was able to see the importance of the different meanings of “church” for the refugees. All of these things, I am able to put myself in the shoes of. It is not a foreign land over in Uganda. These are men, women and children, just like me. And when there is empathy between the two sides, I believe this is a closer step to peace. It may take a while, and it won’t be easy, but there needs to stop being a “me” and a “them”. I will advocate for this as long as I have a voice.

I am excited that we will have a tangible account of our experience. I am nervously awaiting to share our film and everything we saw. I know the story will do the communities that we visited in Uganda justice. I will share, share and overshare. I have been “ruined” for life and who knows the difference that could make.  Overall, I am thankful that I have seen what I have. I can better articulate some of the biggest institutional and tribal struggles that have hit Eastern Africa. That is something I never thought I would be able to say. Thank you, webale nyo, to everyone that made this possible. Endless love to each of you.

The last sunset I saw in Uganda

 

Back “home”

6/20/18

It has been two days since returning from Uganda. I have gone through just about every stage of delirium that you could think of. From our journey home to feeling submerged back into American life, it has been hard being back. One of the ways that I have helped with this has been looking back at the pictures I took while being away. Here are some of my favorites that I would like to share.

Some of the students we met at St. Mary’s Adjumani Girls Secondary School
Andrew and the sewing instructor at Jesuit Refugee Service in Kampala (a couple of us got custom-made shirts and dresses from the students!)
From our safari in Murchison Falls National Park
Some reflection during one of our many ferry rides across the Nile
My nightly view in Uganda
Liz with her handmade kite at our farewell BBQ at John’s house

I thought that I would feel a lot different coming back to America. I knew I would be sad to leave Uganda but thought I would be excited to feel at home and have security. But ironically, leaving Uganda has felt like leaving home and security. It has been frustrating to remember my American lifestyle. I lived a simpler and more full life in Uganda it seemed. I have been trying to figure out how I am going to make my life in America feel that way. I know it will be a process and that the fellow participants will help me through the transition.

I would have never imagined that going to places like the bank, the grocery store and, even out to, restaurants would be so hard. Those places seem like such basic necessities in my life, and for so many, they are impossibilities. And after seeing the importance of family and community in the refugee’s lives, all I want to do is to see my family. It is a hard pill to swallow. I never thought I would feel so connected and empathetic towards people and places that are seemingly so different than the bubble I live in. My bubble has been shattered and I think that is the best thing that has happened to me.

Friends

There are nine Creighton students in this trip’s program – enough for a baseball team. I think we’ve ended up somewhat like the bunch from “The Sandlot.” I can’t assign a character from the film to each program participant. But, we’ve spent our summer (at least part of it) in the dirt (of Uganda) spending each day out in the field (but not baseball field). We’ve formed a team (but not a baseball team) out of a ragtag bunch of individuals who would otherwise pass each other on the mall without any clue of our compatibility. And, just as a guy in the Sandlot was never replaced when he moved away, each member of this group is irreplaceable. 

 

My blogs have largely focused on my encounter with native Ugandans and South Sudanese refugees. But, this program and my experience would be incomplete without the Creighton students with whom I traveled across the world (and Nile). In the process, I’d say we’ve become pretty close. They are each wonderfully and beautifully quirky. And I want to share some of that quirk, so what follows is just a glimpse into their awesomeness: 

 

Ben plays Just Dance with his two younger brothers; their favorite song to dance to is some German song (I forgot the name). He is also prone to wandering in airports, especially if tempted with an ice cream shop (such as Coldstone) or a store with touristy apparel. 

 

Andrew prefers gummy bears to gummy worms. When he was younger, he put gummy bears in his ice cream so that they would harden and played with them as one would play with toys. He also loves crepes and can quote PBS Kid’s “Arthur.”

 

Jacob bottle feeds lambs and knows all the words to Childish Gambino’s “Sweatpants” (and a lot of other songs). He imitates the flight of a butterfly with surprising grace and fluidity. 

 

Zach carries around a Mexican flag in his backpack no matter where he goes. He is more observant of signs and billboards than any other person I have ever met. 

 

Matthew ruined a field trip to the zoo for his classmates when he told them that the elephant was circling with its head tilted due to mental instability caused by its captivity. He also plays Call of Duty with Denver Nuggets players. 

 

Izzy is a FANTASTIC writer and, as a kid, checked out 10 books (the maximum number you can check out) each week from her local library. She has a dark sense of humor revealed in her rizzles. 

 

Nat might be growing a parasitic worm in her stomach right now but loves that worm with all her heart (as with all things) despite the intestinal issues it causes. She can fall asleep ANYWHERE. 

 

Brick can make a tastier apple pie than me and is great at Go Fish and two-person solitaire. And although not great at soccer, the fact that he even tried makes him braver than I will ever be. 

 

Here’s to my new friends! 

 

Friends, if you’re reading this, THANK YOU and know that “I’ll be there for you (When the rain starts to pour)” (the Friends’ theme song) even if it pours as hard as it did in the middle of Sharon’s first interview.