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, Bethel Alaska and Nogales Arizona/Sonora. The next project is tentatively planned for Northern Uganda in 2018.
A lot of our days in Arizona started off very early, whether it be for getting b-roll or to get ready for the long day ahead of us. One day in particular, we were all out of the house we were staying in by 6 in the morning to take an early morning desert walk in Arivaca, Arizona, where we would walkfor two miles on the path that migrants take when they are traveling across the border.
During this walk, we were lead by our tour guide for the day, John Heidt, or as we lovingly called Lil John, who is an activist that works closely with the No More Deaths organization. Throughout the walk, he would give us information one why the route we were taking was a migrant route, and described the grueling journey most of them take to get to this point. We stopped to listen at some points, and even walked to a makeshift shrine made by migrants that had bottles and jugs of water for travelers to drink from. We ourselves left many bottles of water and several cans of food for anyone who would take the trail.
John spoke elegantly about the issue of migration to us and what these travelers go through to make it into the US. One of his statements that stuck with me throughout the trip was about how we, as Americans, tend to have borders in our ears, and unless we take those walls down, we cannot take down the actual wall. I spent a lot of time during the trip reflecting on that particular quote, and understanding that our ultimate goal of the trip was to, in fact, help take down some of those cultural walls through the final product of our documentary.
While it was only two miles, it took us about 4 hours to get through the trip, and all of us were completely exhausted by the end of it; and this was only an insignificantly small fraction of the length that migrants who cross the border have to travel. It gave me a slightly better understanding of the hell migrants have to trek through, albeit a very small example of that. It made the drive back to our house much more reflective, trying to imagine walking all the miles that we drove out there to Arivaca. I guess you really can’t understand what others go through until you walk a mile, or a few hundred, in their shoes.
I started writing this blog when our group took a desert walk with the infamous Lil’ John. I was about halfway through it when I found myself holding down the delete button. All 237 perfectly crafted words were erased in a matter of seconds. That was the problem. They were perfectly crafted. They were artificial. It wasn’t me.
I wasn’t prepared for how the desert walk would affect me. Even today, I feel an ache in my stomach when I think about it.
Let me start by saying that I am not much of a hiker, so my first thoughts as I walked through the “moderate to easy “ trail were negative. Our usually silly group seemed more serious as we slipped and stumbled on the path. We were wearing athletic gear, sunscreen, had water and were well rested. But we were all struggling. My selfish, negative thoughts subsided when we stopped to hear Lil’ John talk about the migrants.
For the first time, it was easy to understand the migrant reality. I could imagine why people twist their ankles, run out of water, get lost or lose their life in the desert. It was hard for me to believe that anyone ever made it out.
Even though I was on the border, talking and serving the migrants every day, I couldn’t really comprehend that this was real. For some reason, I didn’t understand what I was seeing until I walked the path in the desert.
The moment that will stick with me for the rest of my life was when I first spotted a shirt. It was long sleeved, grey and looked like something one of my brothers would wear. It was proof. It was a reminder that this was real. That it belonged to someone.
It hurt when that reality hit me. It hurt that I would never know his name or his fate. I wanted to save him and knowing that I couldn’t and knowing that there were thousands out there was crushing. I think about that shirt and the man who left it all the time.
I want people who are against migration to understand that no one would want to walk that desert trail unless they had to. I want those people to think of their families and what they would do to save them. I don’t want them to step into his shoes, I want them to wear the grey shirt.