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.
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.
This is a quote I heard in an interview with a man named Stanley, the Head of the UNHCR Sub Office Arua in Uganda. UNHCR is the UN Refugee Agency “dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people”. It was an honor and a valuable experience to visit the Arua Sub Office and meet the officials there. To learn more about the UNHCR in Uganda, click here.
While interviewing Stanley, I had mixed emotions about the refugee crisis that we were able to see first-hand. It was a roller coaster of emotions hearing him talk about everything the UNHCR is doing, but then also seeing, first-hand, the devastation and hunger that lives in the refugee settlements. We were informed that Uganda has the most progressive refugee program globally, which is hopeful to hear. While I was reflecting on all of this, I found myself thinking about the juxtaposition of hope and trauma. When one is traumatized, the hope in the perpetrator is lost. I can’t imagine the loss of hope that the refugees feel towards their homes in South Sudan. I always feel frustrated with government officials and policies in my home nation of the United States. But to live in a nation where you are being removed from your home, that is a whole new level of trauma. The needs of the refugees that are seen as the most pertinent and vital are shelter, food, water and medical assistance. These are basic necessities, and very important, but there is not enough of a conversation on the mental support needed for these men, women and children.
Then Stanley hit us with the titular quote and I started to feel my heart wake up from its aching. He talked to us about how hope, and often times, faith are the best bets for reversing the trauma for the refugees. No one knows what the future holds, especially for South Sudan, but that hope needs to be instilled in these men, women and children. All of the South Sudanese refugees that we have talked to have big and rich dreams. I hope for each and every one of them that these dreams are reached. I have never seen the amount of ambition and courage as I have in these people. They deserve to be angry. There is no explanation for why this happens to people, or why they were put in the position. They also deserve to be hopeful. Hope will bring them home. They deserve the world.
Carol, our project’s journalism connoisseur, gave us some trauma journalism reading material before we left. There is one quote from one of the readings that has stuck with me through our travels.
“Unlike traditional journalism, your story will never satisfactorily answer the question, “Why did this happen?”. For individuals or communities who have survived something horrible, you can never explain why it happened to them. This is an existential question they will be asking for the rest of their lives”
I cannot stop thinking about this. Why does anything happen to any of us? Some people may answer God, luck or fate. I’m not sure about my answer yet. I think it will take me a lifelong to feel right in my answer. But for now, seeing these faces and communities in Uganda, I can say that there is no reason that they are experiencing these traumas. And there is no reason that they cannot find happiness and security like everyone else. And that is one of the main perspectives I wish I could yell in a bullhorn to most Americans.
“Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make. You can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is. It’s what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to, but it doesn’t really.
And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along. Something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved. And the truth is, I feel so angry, and the truth is, I feel so f—ing sad, and the truth is, I’ve felt so f—ing hurt for so f—ing long and for just as long I’ve been pretending I’m OK, just to get along, just for, I don’t know why. Maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own.
Well, f— everybody. Amen.”
This heart-wrenching sentiment comes from Synecdoche, New York by Charlie Kaufman. It is as close to a representation of a thought I think a refugee would have. It gives me great hope. When I visited the settlements, most of the refugees didn’t feel this way. Even though they faced the worst possible parts of God’s plan, they didn’t come to despair and bitterness. Hope was still alive.
Of all the principles I’ve seen here, love is the greatest. Even though there is so much differentiating us from them, they welcomed us with open hearts. In every settlement we went to they gave us beautiful performances that showed us their wounded heart is still beating. Most of the people whom we smiled at gave a warmer smile back. The children would follow us as if we had been in the village since they were born. It is this love in the midst of such hardship where I found God dwelling among His people. As Jesus said, love your enemy. In the hearts of these refugees, I could see the word made flesh. They didn’t become like the enemy and turn to hate, but have moved on and are trying to improve their life. In the schools and settlements, we learned that there is a mixture of tribes. This has allowed them to get past tribalism and see the humanity in each other. Such a vision of love goes beyond the explanation of psychology, sociology, and all the other -ologies.
While I have been in Uganda, I have been inspired by the refugee’s faith. After seeing their homes burned, family members killed, and children starved, the refugees still have a faith with a burning intensity that is unquenchable. Instead of turning to nihilism, these people have clung ever stronger to their faith. Their Masses are hours long, there is “God” written on many signs, and the name of Jesus has power here. Their faith is where they find hope. Their whole identity has been destroyed, and their tattered family serves as a reminder. They have become strangers in a strange land. Their faith is their only hope that things will get better. I can see from the way they talk about God that His word is writ on their hearts. Their faith is where they draw the strength to forgive and pursue a future. My experience has shown me that their religion forms the bedrock of their identity. Dumbfounded by such faith, I had to ask Sharon, a radio host and journalist who we interviewed, what do the South Sudanese think about why God allows such suffering. She said that suffering is just a test. We know God loves us and it is just the devil that is trying to tempt us through suffering. We hear God loves us on the radio, TV, and in person everywhere.
If Jesus came here, there wouldn’t be much change. Not because the settlements are so holy but because Jesus focused on eternal life. He didn’t free the Israelites from Rome. Even though he criticized the scribes and the Pharisees, he never overthrew them. Instead, he got crucified by them without protest. The way Jesus focuses on the next world gives me great hope. If the King of the universe lived on earth, he didn’t change the political, social, nor economic structures. He changed hearts.I don’t have to try and fight all these structures that will crumble under their own weight of wickedness. I have to be like Jesus and help my neighbor through small acts with great love. After all, he died on a cross after being abandoned by his followers, and he is still worshiped today. You don’t have to change 7 billion people. If you change one person, you change theworld ( Butterfly Effect). The one-person changes another who changes another. Before you know it, you were a small yet integral piece in the big change.
Some may think the refugees are useless and a burden, but they aren’t. When I see these human being insulted, I see it as an insult to the whole of humanity. A refugee is a human being who is searching for a future after they have been forced from their home. Just like any other human being, they want to protect their family and give a future for their children. Just like any other human being, they want their human dignity back through simple acts like listening to their story. Unlike every human being, even though they have nothing, they still give what little they have. The richness of humanity amidst such poverty could make the hardest heart soft.
The situation for the refugees is like the night. It is a dark time for them where they cannot see very well. There are stars to guide them, but these don’t provide enough light such that there is no darkness. Although the night is quite terrible, it is not permanent. There will be change. I can already see the crack of dawn. These refugees are coming to Uganda to build their future. One great sign of the passing night is the settlements themselves. They are far better now than they were five years ago. Now when refugees come, the UNHCR has a very systematic and organized way to assist the refugees. There is change for the better whether we realize it or not. Coming to Uganda for 18 days, I have found the solution to the refugee crisis. The solution is time. It might take one year or 300 years, but it will get there eventually.
Even though we aren’t directly intervening in the lives of the refugees, this documentary is a still doing a lot of good. Herbert, our guide, has said that just our very presence means everything to these people. They are powerless and stereotyped. The fact that a bunch of students from around the globe came to see what their life was like and share their stories with others really means a lot to the refugees. Humanizing their struggles gives them a level of humanity that has been stripped from them by their government. It acknowledges that people care about them. I could feel it in the interview. They would show it throughout our whole time with them. For me, this time that I have spent with them was priceless, it was life changing.
Here’s the biggest takeaway from the driving tour at the safari park in Murichson Falls National Park:
Elephants eat the seeds in the orange fruits produced by palm trees. The elephants’ digestive tracks do not break down the seeds, so the seeds, fully intact, exit the elephants in their poop. The seeds in their poop grow to form more palm trees. In short, palm trees grow from elephant poop.
Our visit to Murchison Falls is a well-earned break after physically and mentally hard days of filming. A break like this gives time to both recharge and reflect.
Among many other things, we have talked to South Sudanese girls who are refugees studying at an all-girls boarding school in Uganda, interviewed a family fleeing from South Sudan at one of Uganda’s immigration centers that receives refugees as they cross the border, and filmed a large crowd of refugees at a food distribution center in a refugee settlement.
The bus (driven by Sam who should have his own Fast and Furious film because that’s just how great of a driver he is) takes us to all these places: the school, immigration center, and refugee settlements.
Without a working aux chord, the bus rides back to our living facilities give time to think – mixed in with good conversations and card games.
However, my thinking has largely just been the repetition of Father Frans van der Lugt’s 5-word response to suffering:
“Still, the world is good.”
I toss the quote over and over until I think I’ve convinced myself of its truth. At the places we’ve been, it’s really easy to find evidence that points to the contrary. Of which the most heartbreaking is expressionless eyes that have seen far too much of the bad.
But, we have to be willing to consider the possibility that within these landscapes of suffering there is hope for change that leads to something better.
And, as with the elephant’s poop that sprouts a palm tree, something that seems pretty shitty can give rise to something remarkable.
I say this not to romanticize hope at the dismissal of the atrocious conditions in which refugees are made to live. Even an ounce of hope in the face of such widespread hardship is radical.
But, if the world still is good, its goodness has to be reflected in its people. In an interview with Tom Shadyac, Desmond Tutu says what follows about such change that leads to something better:
“God says, ‘you know what, I don’t have anybody else except you.'”
So, it’s up to us.
And, here, I’ve found a sort of fuel in some of the most extraordinary people committed to this goodness in spite of a seemingly hopeless situation. They are exemplars of what it means to be selfless and compassionate.
So, we find ourselves in a safari park, and piles of elephant poop are everywhere.
Hope is knowing that from some of these piles comes palm trees. And that these palm trees will provide shade and respite to what passes underneath so that those that pass feel (even just temporarily) cared for.
While I pack my bag for the final time, I think about the things I am bringing home with me. I am not only bringing home several bumper stickers that support the Arivaca Humanitarian Aid Office or a beautiful cross painted by one of the migrants. I am bringing home the stories, the smells, the exciting and disappointing events of this trip. I am bringing home the seeds of change as one of our interviewees so eloquently put it.
These seeds are perhaps the greatest gift because they grow each time they are planted. Every time our group tells a story or shows our film, we are cultivating change. And like any plant, the seeds we sow must be tended to; therefore our group must never grow complacent. A difficult task in Nebraska, so far from the border and its problems, but the people we’ve encountered while on this trip will undoubtedly stay with us for the rest of our lives. Their stories will guard against our complacency and motivate us to continually agitate for change.
As a writer whenever I am surrounded by people with such fascinating and heart-wrenching stories it’s difficult not to write about them in some form. But in the context of a blog I struggle to pen even one story because their depth beyond what I can encompass successfully in 500 words. In addition because I cannot separate my emotions from these stories it is impossible for me to accurately compose them for a general audience. Maybe one day I will be able to write about them with enough emotional distance to be coherent, but for now their sheer intensity is so overwhelming I am unable to do them justice.
As a videographer (although I certainly wouldn’t call myself that) I have learned to capture reality in its raw emotional state while contributing to a project I hope will plant seeds of change. I am proud of our group for the massive stockpile of footage that we have collected together in expectation of creating this documentary. And I am proud because I know that this group has worked hard over the past two weeks to illuminate the dark side of immigration in the United States.
As a person I have learned that hope is something both fragile and resilient. There is hope for reform along the border, even if the road to it is long and arduous. The people at the Kino Border Initiative inspire me to believe in the idea of humane migration as a possibility because they hold onto hope with the tenacious grip of faith.
In short planting seeds of change is a slow process that yields bountiful rewards to those who tend them. Each person, each discussion, each hot desert hike, waters the seeds and cultivates change.
The saying “the eyes are the window to the soul” has rung true to me during my time in Nogales. It’s impossible to distinguish the emotions, life journeys, trials, and tribulations of the individuals I have encountered with the little knowledge I knew about migration coming into this journey.
The aspect of this journey I keep coming back to is through each struggle that an individual may have encountered, there is a glimmer of hope in each migrants eyes. Hope is the silver lining that keeps humanity afloat in the difficult circumstances life throws our way. While some circumstances are more difficult to overcome than others, working with migrant populations has taught me to never lose hope no matter what the odds are against you.
After listening to the stories of migrants, kin of migrants, volunteers and Jesuits who help migrants at Kino Border Initiative, attorneys who represent migrants in a court of law, and ranchers who see drug smugglers crossing their land near the border, this issue is unbelievably more complex than I could have imagined.
Compassion, however, is not a complex issue. Treating someone as a human, with dignity and respect, is something that doesn’t take years of study to comprehend. Once you see the pain in someone’s eyes that shows the struggles that he or she may have gone through or the glimmer of hope in one’s eyes that shows the triumph that he or she could reach in the future, it’s impossible to see migration as anything but personal stories. If you are touched by one life, you are touched by many.
It’s impossible to say that suffering will ever be extinguished in the world, but if we look at individuals as humans who each have dignity and rights and see marginalized populations as individuals who deserve the same respect we believe we deserve, then perhaps the complexity of suffering can be alleviated.