Tag Archives: #compassion

Discovering a Generous Heart

It’s impossible to predict the new experiences you’ll gain when you enter a foreign space for the first time. For instance, I never imagined that I would feel adventurous enough to suck on a tilapia’s eye (I wish I could say that I managed to swallow it like the other brave students who attempted stomaching the Ugandan delicacy, but I couldn’t stick it out once I tasted its salty cornea). I also didn’t expect to let go of my inhibitions and dance like no one was watching at a cultural performance, crazily swaying my hips to the African drums and laughing uproariously with other uncoordinated visitors from all over the world. And I most certainly did not anticipate the incredible generosity and welcome I have received from the Ugandan people.

Uganda is not a comfortable place to live by any means. 84 percent of Ugandan youth are unemployed, and only 46 percent of college-educated people have jobs. There is a significant economic divide between the poor and the wealthy few; the majority live on less than $1 USD a day and struggle to meet basic needs such as food security or healthcare, while the rich minority reap the benefits from the financial disparity. Malaria, a tropical disease transmitted through mosquito bites, is a real threat, but the simple antibiotics that may help reduce risk for parasitic infection, such as Doxycycline, is not affordable for individuals  living below the national poverty line.

However, despite having very little and struggling greatly, the Ugandans are some of the most generous people I have ever encountered. They are generous in their compassion for other people, quick to sympathize and offer aid if possible; they are generous in their love for Christ, demonstrating their devout faith by connecting God back to all things; they are generous in their time, patient in listening to another’s story and ensuring that individual feels heard; and they are generous in their laughter, taking great joy in the simple pleasures of life.

One moment of generosity that particularly stood out to me  involved a seven-year-old boy we met during our first afternoon in Kampala. While we were enjoying a late lunch at Caffe Java, the restaurant staff brought out a large chocolate cake to the boy, who was celebrating his birthday with his family. After blowing out his candles, the boy cut the cake into multiple bite size pieces and began moving from table to table, offering peripheral restaurant patrons a bit of his dessert.

When the boy reached our group, it took us a few minutes to realize that he wanted to share his cake with us. In the United States, we don’t give food off our table to strangers; such a gesture probably wouldn’t even occur to us. But here was this child, who did not have much, unselfishly giving up his cake for people he did not know, making sure that every one of us was fed. I couldn’t believe that a seven-year-old was capable of such love for his fellow human beings. It was a profoundly touching and humbling experience.

A storm rolling over Lake Victoria, the largest freshwater lake in East Africa. This is also the site of the legendary eyeball-eating incident, which was not as delicious as the boy’s cake.

For the rest of our time here and beyond Backpack Journalism, I want to practice the same generosity that flows through the Africans’ hearts. I will work to offer more of myself to others, to give attention more than I receive it. And maybe one day, I will be able to emulate the same generous spirit as the boy who felt compelled to share food from his table.

It’s funny — I imagined that Uganda would change my heart, but I never expected to be moved so quickly.

Companions, Not Champions

Our Backpack Journalism team has learned a lot about “letting go and letting God” over the last 48 hours.

This Monday we experienced our first unexpected complication when the airline cancelled our flight to Amsterdam – the one we had specifically booked together as a class months ago – merely days before our scheduled departure. We were suddenly thrust into an uncontrollable situation, forced to quickly change our original travel plans so that we could still guarantee an on-time arrival in Entebbe by the end of this week. Fortunately, thanks to John’s persistence with the travel agency and Delta Air Lines, we’ve all managed to procure seats on different flights. Unfortunately, we’re separated into smaller groups for our first international flight, meaning that we’ll need to be extra vigilant with our camera equipment (Although, John’s scared us enough about losing our gear and ruining the documentary that we’ll probably hold onto the devices like our lives depend on it…which, is not an implausible outcome should we – God forbid – leave behind a camera charger or tripod…).

Also, fun fact: Our class will reconvene next month in Amsterdam. I mean, sure, we’re only apart for one travel day, but it’ll be June 1 when we reunite so that technically counts! Funny how random coincidences like that happen, but I digress.

Your CU Backpack 2018 adventurers: [bottom row, left to right] Lizzy, Carol, Izzy (peekaboo!), Natalie, Ben, [top row, left to right] Brick, Matthew, John, Andrew, Tim, Zach and Jacob.

As you can probably imagine, the days leading up to our Uganda trip have been nothing short of hectic. We’ve withstood crash courses in videography and interviewing techniques; we’ve crammed in lessons on approaching trauma through a journalistic lens and critiquing postcolonial narratives in Africa; we’ve sustained an abbreviated seminar in ecclesiology and how the Church has redefined its mission and identity after the monumental Vatican II. On top of riding out an information tidal wave, we’ve scrambled to pack, take care of last minute obstacles, and fine tune the smaller details. It’s exhausting and overwhelming at times, but it’s also been a great bonding experience. I already feel significantly closer with individuals from this year’s Backpack group than I did at the beginning of Boot Camp, and I’m excited to continue fostering those deeper friendships as we brave the unknown together.

The chaos of Boot Camp has also helped influence me toward a more reflective mindset. As our preparations move from vision to reality, I find myself contemplating my motivation behind journeying into the developing world to witness suffering. What can I offer to a people who have endured hardships beyond my comprehension? Why am I going out to capture human devastation and another’s trauma when I know that our project will not make the impact necessary to improve that individual’s quality of life? What do I personally gain from exposing myself to the epicenter of a social justice issue?

These are difficult questions, but necessary ones. Too often we who come from privileged places fail to examine our own motives before entering vulnerable spaces. We’re quick to presume that any minor charitable action compensates our shallower intentions. We readily perpetuate dominant, egocentric narratives to dismiss the uncomfortable truths that make up realities on the margins. We assume that our willingness to engage with impoverished individuals points to our inherently good, altruistic nature. We don’t like discomfort; we’re more content to pretend we’re the solution rather than to acknowledge when we are the problem.

Undisputed acceptance of myths born from entitlement is a dangerous practice and can be particularly harmful to the community you interact with. Sans critical self-examination, one unwittingly falls prey to the trappings of volunteerism, a form of dehumanizing people who are suffering by capitalizing on their image to boost your own social status. Furthermore, you can become tone deaf to oppression – especially when you stand to benefit from injustices.

I won’t pretend that I haven’t subscribed to some of these injurious attitudes in the past, nor will I claim that I am capable of perceiving my own cultural blindspots. To be honest, I’m still trying to figure out whether my inclination to pursue social justice stories is entirely pure.

Although I don’t have the answers to all my questions yet, I do know one thing for certain: that Backpack Journalism is an opportunity for accompaniment, not achievement.

In “Unfinished Houses: Building the kingdom on God’s time,” John J. McLaughlin argues that the most important component to service work is developing meaningful relationships with the individuals you serve. It’s not about completing work that will make a discernible impact or fixing the issue, although those efforts are not without their value. Rather, it’s about surrendering yourself “totally to God and God’s poor,” listening to those who are suffering, doing your own small part, and leaving the rest to God – a practical application of let go and let God, if you will.

And that is fundamentally what Backpack Journalism is about. We are not called to be champions for the refugee crisis, but we have been given a chance to form companionships with each other and the people we’ll encounter. We probably won’t affect as much change in these individuals as they will in us, but that is the beauty of accompaniment: the human relationships you experience have the power to follow your heart and mind even after you’re gone.

As for me, I’m working to keep my heart and mind open.

That’s a Wrap!

Many of my blog posts have reflected on my experience in Arizona and Mexico in a deeper, more analytical way. To say that I am grateful for this experience would be an understatement.

I never expected to “be changed” by this experience, but I think there have been little moments where I’ve stopped to think, “Wow, I never would have thought this way before,” and I’m glad those moments made me step back and realize that this experience helped me appreciate many things in my life.

I have gained a better understanding of a major issue facing our country and I think this understanding came from the migrants we interacted with and the people who give their time and energy towards helping migrants better their lives each and every day.

I am more confident in my abilities as a journalist to tell the stories of others through film. I am humbled to have experienced my faith in a way I haven’t before, through seeing God every day in the migrants who hold such hope in their hearts, even after everything they have gone through.

I am content in telling the story of the migrants, but I am not content with the way immigration is handled in the United States and Mexico. There is so much that needs to be done in both governments, and I hope one day there could be a solution, one that includes treating migrants with the respect and dignity they deserve.

The biggest question to wrap up this experience is what I can do differently based on what I learned. I think there are many things I could do, from grateful for everything in my life – the big things and the little things, to telling others of my experiences and what I encountered in the two weeks we spent in Nogales. While I’ll undoubtedly incorporate this into my life, I think the biggest take away is to approach every individual and situation with a sense of compassion, to look at things from their perspective, and to never underestimate the humanity of our world, the good and the bad. It’s too easy to focus on the negativity that exists in the world, but centering on the positive moments in our lives is something that I believe outweighs all the hardships.

I hope audiences view our documentary with an open heart and open mind. It’s impossible to replicate our experiences in Nogales through film, but I think our documentary explains the human reality of migration and puts a face and life experience to the issue. I could not be more appreciate of this experience, for many reasons, and I know there is still much to be done, but I’ll use that motivation to tell the stories of others in the future – stories that give a voice to the voiceless.

Not a goodbye, but a see you later. So happy I worked alongside such gifted and compassionate individuals who put their hearts and souls into this experience and documentary. Couldn't have asked for a better group of coyotes to "hoo-yip" through the desert with, gracias CU Backpack Arizona!
Not a goodbye, but a see you later. So happy I worked alongside such gifted and compassionate individuals who put their hearts and souls into this experience and documentary. Couldn’t have asked for a better group of coyotes to “hoo-yip” through the desert with, gracias CU Backpack Arizona!

A Recipe for Compassion

This past week I stopped by my favorite coffee shop to write my theology paper due for this class. I ran into a close friend I hadn’t seen in too long and we sat and talked for two hours catching up. I explained to her what Backpack Journalism was, where we went, what I learned, and what we were doing with what we had learned.

She and I had a wonderful conversation about migration, the legal system, what possible solutions are and what could be done. She explained that she was really proud of me and I let that sink in for a minute. I feel as though it’s not me she should be proud of, but the migrants. I’ll put my thoughts into an analogy of what we are trying to accomplish for Backpack Journalism through tortillas, a staple Mexican food.

Tortilla Time
The notorious tortillas we spread out every day and fanned until they were cool enough to store until it was time to serve them.

The migrants and others we interviewed and interacted with gave us the ingredients to use for our documentary, all of the elements that otherwise wouldn’t make the story what it truly, uniquely is. I, along with everyone else in our group, are simply putting all of these ingredients into one concoction (a tortilla if you will) and we’ll put the finishing touches on our documentary (or tortillas) and present it to audiences to enjoy (much like tortillas).

I felt this analogy fit the context in which we served as Sister Alicia so lovingly prepared the tortillas every day for migrants in the Comedor, making sure they were warm and delicious for everyone who enjoyed them. I believe we are preparing our documentary in a similar fashion to how Sister Alicia goes about preparing tortillas: with compassion. Without the migrants, there would be no story, and without the migrants, there would be no one to enjoy the tortillas. Now go get yourself a tortilla, I’m sure you’re craving one by now.

Family Ties

As we continue to edit and piece together our film, major themes are rising to the surface, particularly the meaning of family in regards to immigration. This theme holds a lot of meaning to me not only in the film but in my personal experience in Nogales as well.

A woman we interviewed, Daniela, is the daughter of migrants and is a nursing student in graduate school at the University of San Francisco. Daniela spent several days with us and it was a joy to get to know her and understand her personal narrative in the complexity of this issue. Somehow a connection was made that Daniela knew my aunt, a fellow nurse who spoke at a bioethics conference in California and Daniela met her and spoke with her. I was astounded at how small our world is, what are the odds we ended up on this trip together with this personal connection to someone who I hold so dear to my heart and someone who Daniela knew and respected?

I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Daniela on camera, and it was easily one of the hardest parts of the entire trip for me. Daniela is so passionate about her family, migration, nursing, volunteering, and giving back to a community that has touched her life so personally. There was not a dry eye in the room and it was difficult to even fathom the struggles Daniela’s family has gone through to get to this point in their lives.

Daniela reflected on the meaning behind the sacrifices her family had made to see her succeed and how proud they are of her. It was impossible for me not to think of my aunt, this common bond Daniela and I shared, and how meaningful her presence in my life has been. She is one of the strongest, most compassionate people I know and love, and I couldn’t imagine my life without her in it.

Daniela’s story was touching in so many ways and I am genuinely grateful to have been able to hear her story and convey that to a larger audience. Her story is just one narrative amongst many migrants,  each unique, significant, and raw in their own way.

Group picture of Backpack journalism crew and Daniela Vargas
The Backpack Journalism team with Daniela before she journeys back to California.