Tag Archives: JRS

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.

3-Refugee Worker: Betty

Diagram on a school building at St. Mary’s Adjumani Girls’ Secondary School

Betty worked for JRS in Adjumani until it was discontinued. She helped train primary-school teachers. She did so well that JRS helped fund her Bachelor’s degree. She went to JRS South Sudan where she helped train primary teachers. She had to flee the country when the civil war began, making her a refugee herself. She was in a hotel meeting when the war was breaking out. There were soldiers there who made sure that no one left and no one came in. She managed to escape by hiding beneath a covered cart that was used for resupplying the hotel. Her rescuers then took her out of the country in a van.

She started one month ago here at JRS Adjumani. JRS Adjumani focuses mainly on education. They try to aim for 50:50 boy to girl ratio for students. It is harder to fill all the spots for girls because of the great challenges they face. Fortunately, this is Betty’s expertise. She is the assistant education officer and helps train teachers in adolescent development. They are aided by career guidance counselors who help direct students to take certain classes so that they can fulfill their dreams. Counselors help students get past traumatic experiences and family problems. Teachers and tutors also teach study skills. Betty focuses on girls’ education because of the many challenges they face. One challenge that is unique to girls is the lack of sanitation pads for menstruation. Away from home, they need all their basic supplies like clothes and soap to survive. A bigger challenge is early marriage. Parents can force their children to marry for economic or cultural reasons. Girls can be as young as 10 although most are 15 or 16. For some tribes it is quite common. Boarding schools are the best way to break the cycle. The Ugandan government is catching on and is helping prevent child marriage through its laws.

Primary school is where education starts. Children learn English, math, social studies, and science. The curriculum differs by country. They incorporate local culture by teaching the local language, local dances, and local music. School is hard at the beginning, but the students eventually get the hang of it. The best part is that the students can get individual help from their teachers. Even the parent teacher association can get involved and help the teacher out. Parents can come into classrooms and help the teacher keep order.

All of Ugandan education points to university. Although a degree doesn’t guarantee employment, having a university degree increases the chances for getting a job and increases the chances for getting a better job. Graduates will usually remain close to where they graduate. Employers mainly look at qualifications above all else, and nothing says you’re more qualified than a degree or perhaps some experience. Those who drop out can go to vocational training. They finish with a skill and a start up kit to help them do their skill. Those who don’t go to vocational training can become idle and turn to drinking.

The behavior of a teacher is just as important as what they teach. There has been a lot of change in recent decades. Caneing used to be prevalent in schools. A teacher could get a stick and whack a child’s bottom if they got an answer wrong or if they behaved badly. Sticks from coffee trees lasted the longest. Now, caneing has been in sharp decline. The focus is on positive discipline like standing in consternation. Furthermore, each country has developed it’s own ethical code for teachers to follow.

No matter where students land, they will have learned about peacebuilding because of school. Classrooms are mixed with people from all tribes. They learn they are all humans first instead of tribes first. The peacebuilding doesn’t stop in the classroom. People from tribes who have hated each other like the Dinka and Neur go through education programs hosted by NGOs. It used to be that the Dinka, who have the power in the South Sudanese government, couldn’t stay in the same refugee camps as the people from the other tribes because violence would break out. That is no longer the case in many camps. There are also peacebuilding efforts between the host communities and refugees so that they can understand each other’s struggles. The host communities are even willing to give more land for those refugees who need a lot of food and therefore more farm land.

It is great that so many people are able to carry on with life when their homes have been destroyed. It looks like they will have to keep carrying on as the situation in South Sudan looks grim. Even the peace talks fail. The good thing is Uganda will probably not fall into the same situation. Ugandans have a strong fear of God and listen to the bishops. The people have seen the mess that resuts from conflict and don’t want it to happen to them. Plus, most Ugandans don’t have guns like almost 75%of the population in South Sudan just before the war.

Getting Into Full-Swing

My body clock is adjusted, I’ve gotten over the new bathroom arrangement, and we’ve moved past the days of afternoon breaks. This Uganda trip and the reason we’re here became much more real today as the team finally moved into our first filming session, working with JRS as we learned more about their programs, outlook, and grounds. Thanks to the wonderful outlook and background given by Kizaza and Father Kevin among others, the group got a lot of what I’m hoping is good b-roll and interview footage. I was very doubtful of one idea that continued to get repeated to us: the story will unfold when we get there. Instead, I chose to be nervous about my interview, of which I was running the very first one we did. However, when we actually started, I realized that everything would indeed work out and develop on its own.

I was really amazed by the work JRS continues to do for people of all regions around them, with what most would consider very limited circumstances. However, they navigate it well and continue to do great work with so many individuals. Tomorrow, we’ll return again to get more footage, interviews, and hopefully a greater understanding of what this project will do.