Did Empathy Grow?

My New Friend, Who I Will Never See Again

At the beginning of this process, I expressed my hope to expand my empathy to refugees in Uganda. The  question that hangs in the air now is: did I succeed? In order to extend my empathy, I needed to make personal connections to people, to relate to their story, and share in their experience in some way. Upon reflecting, I become afraid that I spent too much time worrying about the film; worrying about getting the best shot, from the best angle possible. The camera, while small in size, is a formidable wall to put up between yourself and the people you are observing. I remember when we went on family trips in my childhood, Avery would chide me for spending too much time behind the camera, and not soaking up the experience itself. I now see the danger that he was talking about.

Fortunately though, I can pull on distinct strands of memory that are rich with personal connection, emotion, and empathy. Specifically, there was a man named Lewi, who we met in the first few days in Uganda. He was a refugee from South Sudan, now living in Kampala, Uganda. Before the civil war broke out, Lewi lived by the vice president of South Sudan, and even worked on some projects with Forest Whitaker. I’m kicking myself right now, I can’t remember the scope of his work with the Hollywood actor. I just remember that he knew Forest in some capacity. *Mind blown*. He had nine children, and a wife, all whom escaped the violence in South Sudan. But violent it was. Lewi saw people being pulled to the side of the road and murdered. He had to hide in the African bush to escape detection and slaughter himself. His house got bombed. All of his livelihood was wiped off the face of the Earth. Even now in Kampala, he faces hardships from poverty, limited space, and unsafe drinking water. Indeed, on our last day in Uganda, as we were driving south through Kampala, I asked our guide (Herbert) if Lewi could meet us at a market we planned to stop in. Lewi agreed to meet us there. He and I walked around the market, dodging the shop keepers’ aggressive sales techniques: “Hello sir, why don’t you come into my store. Come over here. I have a great deal just for you”. “Sir, I see you went into that store. What are you going to buy from ME?” While walking, Lewi told me that his wife had fallen ill with an infection, and he himself had contracted typhoid fever the day prior. Of course, this meant that he could not work – he became a carpenter in Uganda, after taking a year’s worth of classes at JRS-Kampala. Thus, his kids had missed the first two weeks of school. Lewi could not afford their school fees.

When I interviewed Lewi for the film, we could all see the sadness in his face – hear it in his voice – when he talked about the life that he lost in South Sudan.

Despite this, Lewi’s spirit was unquenchable. We went to his house in order to get some b-roll for the documentary. Here, he proudly showed us all of the cupboards that he had constructed, introduced us to all of his kids, and his wife. He showed us how to foot-juggle a soccer ball the right way; not all clumsily like us Americans do. One of my favorite parts: as we were preparing to leave, he gathered us all into a circle and prayed over us. My memory does not serve me well enough to know exactly what he prayed. I do remember that feeling of unity though. American and refugee, together. No, that’s not what it felt like. It truly felt like good friends praying in solidarity.

Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Oh Wait, No. Keeping Up with the Lewi-ans…

And friends we were. Fast friends in fact. The first day I met Lewi, we were already talking about Harry Potter; shooting the breeze on the ole’ J. K. Rowling. I got Lewi’s email and intend to keep, if not occasional, contact with him. At some point I want to send him a digital copy of the entire Harry Potter series, as he hasn’t actually read the books yet.

Every time I need to access my empathy for Africa, I am going to think of Lewi. My simple goal moving forward is to stand on the side of the refugee, both here in Omaha, and on an international scale. Since the topic of refugees has been politicized, standing up for them can sometimes bring the fury of friends and family upon you. However, I am determined to stand my ground with these people. When it gets hard, I will remember my friend, Lewi.

Wrap it Up Bodlak

Comparing the beginning of this experience with the present moment, there are some discrepancies. I am now more confident in my ability to adapt to other cultures. In other words, I am confident in my ability to overcome culture shock. I actually found being immersed in African culture to be more enjoyable than challenging, which was a nice surprise. Highlight of the trip: meeting Lewi, and praying with him and his family outside of his house. Low-light: Doxycycline. All-in-all, I believe I accomplished all that I set out to do on this trip.

As Lewi and I walked around the market, I couldn’t help but feel kind of cool. I had on my UN hat, and was all buddy-buddy with this man who had experienced more than enough of his share of the world. I could only imagine what the shop keepers thought of us. Perhaps Lewi was the governor of some important state, and I was his ambassador/guide to Kampala. Or maybe we both worked together in the UN, doing top secret UN things that could only be discussed with the likes of Merkel and Trudeau. My point is, no matter what grandeur was running through my head, the shop keepers still charged us like we were clueless Americans. Lewi noticed that I was drawn to a specific mug on the shelf. “Come in sirs, I see you’re interested in an item I have”, the young woman called. She proceeded to point to everything on the shelf except the mug. *Face palm*.

I could not afford the mug myself, as we had reached the end of our trip. So, Lewi pulled out his wallet, and AGAINST MY URGING – please note that I was strongly against this – payed for the mug. His spirit, let me tell you, was more golden than the sunset over the Rockies.

To read more about UNHCR, the branch of the UN that we worked with (thanks to Isaac and JRS) on this trip, click here.

To see more about Creighton Backpack Journalism, click here.

To read more about Jesuit Refugee Services (JRS), click here.

About Andrew Bodlak

A soon-to-be senior at Creighton University. I grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and still hold a love for the city and state as a whole. I love going back and seeing the mountains, the Tesla store in Denver, and the hustle and bustle of I-25. I am a Neuroscience major at Creighton University, a major choice which has brought much fruit into my life. While is can be very challenging at times, I have learned to love a good challenge - especially when I get to the top of the metaphorical hill and look back on all that has been accomplished. This definitely applies to tough courses, but also to real life. For example, I have been in a long distance relationship with the most wonderful woman in the world for three years now - this was admittedly a LARGE challenge - but I appreciate the challenge nonetheless. As a side note, she is moving to Omaha for a masters program next year, so I am approaching that mountaintop of relief very soon. Five cheers of joy! Woohoo!

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