Tag Archives: UNHCR

Hope reverses trauma


“Hope reverses trauma”

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.

Stanley saying wise words in his interview

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.

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.