Lost and found
March 29, 2012 3 Comments
Over and over we hear how students bent on helping others are themselves benefited. During a recent Alternative Spring Break trip, junior Jake Williams experienced that first hand. What he learned is a lesson for all of us…..
A reflection on the Lost Boys of Sudan
by Jake Williams (’13)
A few weeks ago, I was flying 35,000 feet high toward Phoenix, Ariz., with 11 classmates and our professor. Prior to flying, we spent the semester wrestling with some of the most sensitive topics one can analyze: genocide and refugee issues. Our class was created to prepare us for a weeklong Alternative Spring Break service trip to work with The Sudanese Lost Boys Center for Leadership Development and Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Center. These two centers help resettle refugees from all over the world into the United States.
The class, “SCOM 318 Practicum In Communication: Genocide and Refugee Issues” entailed three primary requirements. First, complete the class readings. Second, have an engaged mind and passionate heart. Third, have a positive attitude, an open mind and a smile. Walking into this class, I knew it was going to be unlike any experience I had ever had at college. When we all met for the first time, our professor said, “This class is about you. It’s about challenging yourself. It’s about growing. It’s about service learning and becoming an active citizen.”
At the beginning of the semester we all had an idea of what a refugee was, but most of us had never heard of Burma, or even knew Darfur was in Sudan. We had heard of child soldiers, yet never really understood why there were child soldiers. We had no idea that there are over 17 million refugees displaced from their homes and living in camps. We learned that less than one half percent are resettled into the United States, and that’s the highest in the world. Our assigned readings exposed the realities of the world we live in. Throughout the weeks of class, we reflected on and discussed those readings, and each of us contributed to our class blog. No matter how much we learned; nothing could have fully prepared us for what we were about to experience.
Stepping out of the plane, I realized I was stepping out of my comfort zone. It’s hard to try and prepare yourself for a conversation with a refugee. It’s easy, however, to fill your mind with fear or false expectations. You can’t really expect anything when walking into the unknown. Look into the eyes of a stranger, extend your hand, and say, “Hello.”
We spent each morning working with Catholic Charities, bringing supplies to refugees. Through a grant from the ASB program, along with the generosity of our friends and families, we were able to raise $1,000 to purchase basic necessities for newly arriving refugees and other already resettled families. They greeted us with glowing faces along with stories of their journeys and culture.
One day, we met a 21-year-old man named Maombi. He left the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was only five, spent two years in Uganda living in a refugee camp, then fifteen years in Rwanda at another camp. He came to the United States three months ago. English has become his fourth language within that time. He now works the night shift at the airport in Phoenix, and it takes him an hour to walk to work. Meeting Maombi and hearing his journey really made me think about my own life in comparison — how different it is just because I happened to be born in a particular area of the world. For Maombi and many other refugees, a big part of their dream to come to America and get an education is simply to have a safe place to call home. Through Maombi I gained an appreciation for all of the opportunities I have had in life.
Returning to JMU meant returning to the ‘everyday grind.’ We found ourselves far away from the desert air of Arizona, the hostel we called home and the many friends we made along the way.
JMU’s Alternative Break Program stresses service learning and becoming an active citizen. This trip was truly an example of higher education and hands-on learning. For many of us, it was the college learning experience we were waiting for.
We were forced to step out of our comfort zone and reflect on who we are fundamentally. We reflected on how we’ve been living: running on coffee, going from task to task, balancing schoolwork with jobs, relationships and different organizations. If this trip has taught me anything, it’s to have balance in my life. It’s important to do well in school and be responsible, but it’s also important to enjoy life and live in the present. You have to remember to stop and really acknowledge where you are and all the opportunities you have right at your fingertips. Our generation has really shown how we can all be active citizens and connect with one another through social media, raising awareness of global issues and organizing local actions for positive change.
I remember when one of the lost boys asked us if we had ever been salsa dancing. We asked him if he had, and he replied, “Of course!” He did it for no reason, just because it seemed fun. This experience has taught me to break routine and step out of my comfort zone and into new experiences.
The lost boys always told us it’s your life, you’re in control, and you should do what makes you happy.