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.
For the first time I felt like a tourist today. We did one interview with the director of the Kino Border Initiative and then we were on the road again. We had to drop Nico off at an airport back to Omaha for a wedding and then we went to Saint Xavier missionary.
It was absolutely beautiful both inside and out. The church was so busy yet so beautiful. The detail and purpose of the art work was unreal. Matthew and I climbed up this really rockey hill to the top where there was this white cross that you could see from miles away.
After that we went out to eat and then to another missionary that the Jesuit Kino started. It was really cool being there and seeing how they collaborated, not dominated, the indigenous culture.
To end the night, I was the grill master again. I grilled 17 pieces of chicken. Carol wanted to make Greek salads so three people helped her with that while I was outside. The chicken turned out great! Everyone really enjoyed it and it went great with the salad. While we were cooking we had a blast dancing and singing to songs. Some of my classmates thought I did musicals and plays growing up but I said no. It was so much fun though bonding with Carol and my other classmates.
Check out our snapchat @cubackpack to see some of my interpretive dancing to a Tarzan song and others exceptional dancing/lip singing skills.
The morning began again at El Comedor. We got a lot of B-roll of the inside before breakfast started. Then I got some really great shots of migrants faces and actions while one of the sisters was talking. Every time I go in El Comedor I learn so much. Although language can be a barrier, just a simple smile can go a long way. I would say gracias and smile and the migrants would beam and some even said that I have very good pronunciation!
I saw my friend who, described in a blog from earlier, left his children in order to get a better job in America. He said he is going to wait a while before he crosses but he plans on doing it for his little girls. His face lite up when he saw my face and greeted me with a, “hello brother.”
We also met up with a Jesuit from the Kino Border Initiative. His name was Father Peter and we talked a lot just by ourselves. He is truly an amazing guy who has seen a lot in his sixty plus years. He loves giving me hard time and whenever a Hispanic would be standing there he would talk to him or her and start speaking in Spanish and pointing and laughing at me. He has made me want to learn Spanish just so I can understand him and that’s exactly why he was doing it. His story is very similar when it comes to foreign language. He grew up not liking Spanish and not getting it in an academic setting. When he was about 30 he was immersed in the culture and learned it that way. I never enjoyed Spanish classes growing up but being down here makes me want to learn the language from the people.
As we were interviewing our fourth person of the day in El Comedor I talked to Ivan, a Jesuit at Kino, about all these beautiful crosses I had been seeing migrants painting. He told me stories behind some of them and said that they are for sell and that the migrants who painted them get 80% of the profit. The other 20% goes towards buying more wood and materials. The one featured below is going to an art gallery to be put on display. I really wish I could have bought it.
Everyone but four of us went out to lunch in Nogales, Sonora. We who remained got ready for an interview of a migrant who just tried crossing the border. It was a very moving story. He got beaten up by Mexican authorities, then American Border Patrol, and when he was brought back to Mexico he was threatened by the cartel.
I went out on my own to shoot some B-roll of where the cars drive to get to the U.S. It was no more than 100 yards from El Comedor but it seemed like miles. When I was shooting I noticed a few Mexicans walking around in my area. Then the bridge I was by had five or six cartel members under it and they were very curious about what I was doing. By the end of my shoot here was around 20 cartel members within 50 yards of me wandering all around. They would look at my screen to see what I was filming. I kept my cool and even said hola and smiled and they smiled back and conversed a little. I was a little scared but not enough to make it seem like I was rattled or afraid.
My partner Goose and I had a great day together. While an interview was going on in the women’s shelter we went outside and shot a lot of B-roll in the area. Then we went to the downtown port in Nogales, Sonora with Father Peter. We got B-roll of the port and the cattle shoot. I ventured off on my own for a while to where the train tracks go into the United States. I wanted to get pictures and video of when the last rail car goes through and the U.S. Border Patrol closes the gates. It was a great shot but something that struck me so wrong was how it was a Union Pacific train that said, “Building America” on the side. A train that likely traveled thousands of miles through Mexico says that they are building America.
Lastly Goose and I made sixteen hamburgers and 5 hot dogs for dinner. We cooked them over a charcoal fire but with that much meat you are bound to get a lot of juice to fall and start a giant flame. We ran and got everything off the fire and spread the coals out even more. At this point the burgers where black on both sides and bright red in the middle. We then put them back on when the flames died down and put cheese on them to hide our mistakes a bit. No one complained and they actually tasted pretty good! It was a great end to another good day.
My name is Natalie Riordan and I am a journalism student at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. For the next several weeks, my classmates and I will be creating a documentary about immigration. Please think of us in your prayers or positive thoughts as we embark to the border (see Nogales on map below).
For those of you who don’t know, like me when I first applied, Creighton is a Jesuit school. Magis was the first Jesuit value I was taught upon my arrival to Creighton almost three years ago. Magis simply means “more”. While the definition may be simple, the actions to fulfill it are much more complex.
Before I knew that little, Latin word, I felt it inside of me. In high school, I was dedicated to my studies, dance, volunteering and leadership. I was internally competitive, completely motivated and entirely overwhelmed. I wanted to be successful, not for me, but for the parents who dedicated themselves just so I had the opportunity.
I still feel magis inside, fueling me, throughout my college experience. The motivation of magis is why I decided to complete three majors and a minor in four years, why I studied in Italy for a semester, why I’ve had three internships, why I hold executive office on three different campus organizations and why I am going on this trip.
I used to think that magis was measured through a quantitative method; if my planner was not filled, I failed. It is only day one and this trip has already taught me that the philosophy of magis is more about the quality of work.
For the first time, this documentary will be the only responsibility that I will focus on. I want to give more to my classmates, professors and to the people and stories that I will tell. I am excited to go beyond the textbook and experience what it is like to be a real journalist. I am scared of the unknown and the horrors that I may hear. I am motivated, in a new way, by magis.
Let me set the scene. We’re out on a hill in the middle of the Alaskan tundra. The sun is just setting at 11:30 pm, and there are monstrous mosquitos flying around our huddled group. Suddenly, a Syrian man stands up, smiles, opens his arms wide as if embracing the annoying insects, and makes us all roll with laughter. This is Tony Homsy S.J.
For two weeks, Tony was in Bethel, Alaska using his photography skills to help create a documentary. Not only was he in Alaska, but he was also just about as far away from his home country of Syria as he could be. He was literally on the other side of the world.
“Funny story,” he said when I asked him why he chose to come on this trip. How Tony ended up in Alaska actually happens to be the fulfilment of a joke he made with a friend a year before. While Tony was still studying in Lebanon, his friend was studying in Paris.
“Okay, I’m going to Alaska,” Tony said when his friend started teasing him. He never thought it would actually happen. What was once a silly exaggeration became a reality when he signed up for the Backpack Journalism course about six months later.
Originally, Tony is from the largest city in Syria, known as Halab to locals and Aleppo to the rest of us. It’s been awhile since he’s seen his family in person. In fact, it was May of 2013 when he last saw is brother and July of 2012 was when he last saw his sister. Despite all of this, Tony still manages to be the most joyful person I’ve met.
“Wherever you are, live with joy.” This is what Tony told me he learned while he was in Bethel. At first, he said he was skeptical about how people could spend a part or all of their lives in Bethel. Then, he spent a day with a man named Arvin. Tony could see that, even though Arvin was living in the middle of nowhere, he was still filled with joy.
“Not because he was wealthy…just because he embraced his life.”
For the past year, Tony has been a student (more specifically, a special student as he makes sure to tell us) at Creighton studying photojournalism. Photography and journalism are not new interests for Tony. He’s been practicing for years now. For him, it’s become much more than a hobby.
“I feel like photography and digital journalism is not just service, but it’s more of like a vocation,” he said. “This is the special gift that God give to Tony, and Tony, if he is Ignatian person, he needs to go more.”
And what a gift it is. Anyone who has seen Tony’s photos knows that he has a very special talent. Photography holds a special meaning for him, which he effortlessly conveys in each snapshot. For his daily Instagram photos, he tries to select a photo and a single word that embodies what the day meant to him or the most meaningful part of his day. You can visit Tony’s Instagram here.
We all like to joke about Tony being a Jesuit. He loves to give it right back to us too. One of my favorite moments on the trip was when I had just borrowed Tony’s bug spray.
“Thanks Tony,” I said. “I really appreciate it.”
“Ah, that is the Jesuit way,” he replied. “We share. You want bug spray, I give it to you. You want to use my Macbook…”
“And you give it to me?”
“Ahhh no!” he shouted. “Are you crazy?”
But in all seriousness, Tony exemplifies Ignatian spirituality. He is constantly searching for God in all things. As Tony sees it, nothing, not even the mosquitoes or a town in the middle of nowhere is out of God’s reach.
“We embrace everything that leads us to God,” he shared. He embraced Bethel, and he will embrace Syria when he returns in August. Embracing life and joy is something that Tony seems to do better than anyone. Through his talent in photography and his wonderful sense of humor, it’s easy to see that Tony will continue to help people live their lives with joy.