Reflecting on the week

Well, it’s over. It’s time to process.

At first, this trip was frustrating for me. I have been on Alternative Spring Break trips before where I was made to do large amounts of service work. Signing up for this trip, I expected to have the same experience. To my dismay, it was not the case. The employees at Catholic Charities and the Lost Boys center did not have physical tasks for us to do. Most of our days were centered around an interview type of conversation with the refugee families and the Lost Boys. We asked questions and talked for hours. Sometimes the conversation would simmer away and we would all stare at our feet, trying to think of something to say. I did not end each day with sore muscles and a sweaty brow.

I felt guilty. Why was I flown across the country if I was not doing anything for these people? We brought them donations, but in my eyes that did not feel like enough. How were they at all benefiting from my presence there? I felt as though I could be getting the same experience from sitting in class. Fortunately, I was wrong. I had to shift my paradigm of what service-learning is to fully understand the trip’s purpose. It was not until afterwards that I truly reflected on this and could grasp the answer.

It is their stories that mattered the most. A person’s identity is seen through the stories that they tell and how they tell them. I heard a lot of stories last week from many different people. One theme that wove its way through each personal testimony was that of hope. The families from Somalia, from the Congo, from Libya, from Sudan: they all spoke with the belief that things would turn out okay. It did not matter where they were from or what their native language was, they all had this overwhelming faith in life. They talked of their hopes for education, for professional careers, for peace in their home country, and for reuniting with their families.

How could they stay so positive with all of the trauma that had happened in their lives? It was not as though they ignored their hardships, rather they were very open with the struggles they had faced and still face. Yet, I had expected a darkness to shroud their words, and all that I found was light. It was inspiring and beautiful. I realized that this trait is what allowed them to survive through the horrible conditions in their pasts. This group of people is one of the strongest, and most courageous that I have ever met.

The conversations that we had with these people filled in the gaps that our class readings left out. Text on paper does not have the same impact as meeting a person in real life. A piece of paper cannot convey Jany’s contagious laugh, or Koor’s calm and collected demeanor. I can now call them my friends, and this produces a level of compassion that cannot be replicated by a scholarly article. I could have met refugees in Harrisonburg, but it would not have been the same. Leaving our comfort zone of Virginia and being vulnerable to a new city was important to understanding the refugees. When they came to America, the culture and places were foreign to them. We could relate on a small scale, as we had never been to Phoenix or lived with each other before.

As for the service? I may not have set up an apartment or helped teach English, but I did do something. I flew across the country to meet a group of people and listen to their stories. I will speak with the hope that they spoke with. I hope that they feel comforted by the fact that we wanted so badly to meet them. I hope that they feel less alone in this country where their language is not native, and where some people could mistake them for being illegal. I hope that they can call the United States home. I hope that more scholarships are given, so that they can afford to further their education in the United States. I hope that governments around the world will interfere with and stop genocide, because it is not an issue of the past. After this week, I care so much about people in countries that a year ago I had never heard of. It honestly is difficult to convey the impact that they have had on me.

This trip reminds me of the saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” I could have been given the chance to do more service in Arizona, felt satisfied for that week, and come home. However, I have been taught something far more valuable. The stories that I heard can be spread to others for a lifetime, and hopefully change things on a grander scale. Getting to know people and really caring about their lives is the most important. It is what separates a friend from a stranger; it is what separates peace from genocide.

– Kelsey


Some Final Words

This past week has been such an incredible journey, and we have had the amazing opportunity to meet so many courageous people along the way. Before I came on this trip, I had a basic knowledge of refugees and genocide, but after speaking with the families we’ve encountered during this week, I can now say that my education of those subjects has skyrocketed. 

I was nervous to meet all of these families at first because I didn’t know what to expect. I remember feeling especially jittery the very first day we went to Catholic Charities to be introduced to our first set of families. I can recall standing outside the first apartment, my heart beating frighteningly fast, my palms starting to glisten with sweat. We were standing in a line, all holding household items in our hands that we had just purchased from the dollar store. I was at the front of the line, unsure of what lay on the other side of the door. I thought my nerves might lighten after we had visited a few houses, but I always had a knot in my throat every time we went to go meet a new family. 

I loved that every family had something different to offer, and every individual went through their own personal struggles. The language barriers made it tough at times to communicate, but we were still able to ask and get answers to a majority of our questions. I am extremely grateful for the Arabic and Spanish translators that helped us break the barrier. They were major components in allowing us to communicate with the refugees. 

The Lost Boys of Sudan were a truly inspiring bunch of young men. They had faced so many difficulties in their life, yet they had the most positive and happy attitude I had ever seen. Despite all the hardships they faced, they still managed to turn their life around with hard work and dedication. Much of that hard work paid off and many of them came out on top with degrees ranging from psychology to social work to nursing. And through it all, they still want to go back to South Sudan and help people there. I think that is the most powerful thing someone can do. Their strong desire to return to a place where they once fled from the threat of death is truly heartwarming. 

Some highs of the week would definitely be having the opportunity to meet all the refugee families and hear all of their amazing, unforgettable stories. I loved listening to them talk about how much they love America and how much they appreciate the opportunity to come here and start their new lives. Also, being able to spend time with the Lost Boys and really getting to know them and hang out with them on a personal level was truly rewarding. I was so lucky to go on this trip with the awesome students in my class. We all became so close and I can honestly say that this experience wouldn’t have been the same without them.

Some lows of the week were listening to the heartbreaking things that the families had to go through in the camps. For example, the family from the DR Congo, who were in the camps for 8 years were only given enough food to survive. And the Somalian mother who had a three-year-old daughter said that nighttime was the scariest because the Kenyan rebels would shoot at anything they saw moving in the darkness outside, even if you were just getting water from the pump. Something that was also a huge low for me was feeling guilty when the Libyan sisters talked about how much they loved school, and their aspirations to become doctors. It made me feel guilty because I realized how much I took going to school for granted. It is expected of us that we have to go to school, but having the opportunity to learn, was a luxury for most of these families.

Overall this trip has taught me to cherish all the opportunities that were just handed to me, things that I didn’t earn through hard work. We met real people who had suffered through horrific times and we were given the honor of talking to them. I left the houses feeling incredibly blessed. Although talking to these families was very emotionally draining, it was also immensely rewarding. After witnessing these experiences in real life they can come to a place like America where they don’t have to worry about people coming after them. My heart goes out to these families and the families still stuck in the refugee camps. I hope the efforts of Catholic Charities, the Lost Boys of Sudan, and the United States Government can change the lives of many many more people and bring them to America for a life of safety and security. 

Stefanie Leshner

A Piece of the Pie


Over the course of the last seven weeks, our class has focused heavily on the Sudanese genocide, The Lost Boys of Sudan and their journey to resettle in America. I was so impacted by the refugee families we met earlier in the week, but it truly was The Lost Boys that touched me. 
After watching three films about South Sudan and the conditions there, I feel even more knowledgable about the state there. And nothing will ever replace the experience of meeting and interacting with them. Jany, a Lost Boy that was resettled in the US at the age of 16, was without a doubt the most positive person I have ever encountered. After such a traumatic experience, one would think he had a bad attitude, but it was the opposite. Getting to spend time with him was a highlight for me. Seeing his work with The Lost Boys Center is so inspirational and motivating. I really appreciated being able to ask any question and receive an honest answer, he wasn’t shy in sharing anything. Since he has been resettled here for so long, his story was much more defined as opposed to the refugee families that just got to America. 
Also, Jany thinks of America as his second home. He made me understand how lucky we all are to just be America citizens, for so many that isn’t such an easy accomplishment. He recently had a daughter, and he is very adamant about teaching her his native language and making her educated about South Sudan. Many of the Lost Boys we interacted with talked about how their children are a fragile generation that could easily lose the culture of South Sudan. I think it is really amazing how so many of them want to keep that alive.
As the week culminated and we were forced to say goodbye, we were all left feeling like ‘What’s next?” After spending a week learning and spending time with refugees, I think we all want to book the next flight to South Sudan and change the world. However, it’s not that easy. We talked a lot about how the problem seems too big, too complicated and too far reaching to really make an impact. Kuol, another Lost Boy who works at the center, talked about ‘just working with a slice of the pie’. It’s easy for us to feel bewildered and overwhelmed, but it’s the small things that can really start to make a different. Over this past week we have had the opportunity to tell many people about what we were doing; that alone is a step in the right direction. 
I’m heading back to JMU with a new outlook on the minority of America. Everyone has a specific journey that can’t be generalized and assumed, for me, this is what I am most proud of. I haven’t yet decided what I want my piece of the pie to be yet, but I’m sure I will find something. I’m scared that the feeling I’m left with will wear away. Currently, I’m so inspired and truly touched by all the refugees and The Lost Boys and can’t imagine that they will not become a permanent part of my life. I can’t wait to see what kind of an impact we can make in the Harrisonburg community.

Dinner with friends

        The white lights surrounding our beautiful hostel flickered on as another warm Phoenix day began to cool. Last night I had the pleasure of having some of the Lost Boys of Sudan over for dinner. They started to arrive as our professor laid the burgers and hot dogs over the grill. Throughout the week we visited refugees from all around the world at their new homes. We brought donations and exchanged questions. These interactions were a step up from the learning in a classroom, but last night was a step up from it all. As we sat down around the table, I had the opportunity to personally interact not with refugees of genocide, and not with Africans with sad stories, but with some of the most beautiful and inspiring people I have ever met. I would like to share this experience with readers. I will share what I learned from the gentleman I mostly spoke with and show that no matter how different two people may appear to be, a dinner shared between them can be as familiar and delicious as those shared with close friends and family.

            At dinner, I sat next to a gentleman named Koor.  Initial questions from my group and I revealed the amazing story of Koor. Like thousands of other Lost Boys, he had to escape the killing of those closest to him and walk thousands of miles to a refugee camp. To put some perspective on this feat, my group and I hiked five miles in Sedona the other day, out of breath, sore, hungry, and extremely tired. Not only did my friend have to walk two hundred times my hike, he had to do so without any food, any water, and with death following close behind. After living in a camp for several years, he got to come to America as a teenager.  Everything was new to Koor when he arrived. Things taken for granted by Americans as common knowledge are completely alien to refugees in the beginning. Laughing for the first time last night, the soft-spoken Koor told us how a fellow Sudanese friend drank dish detergent mistaking it for juice. After gaining his bearings on the oddities of American living, Koor set out to find work while attending the tenth grade.  Refugees coming to America usually have three months to find a job to begin paying back the airfare for their journey here. His first job was serving water to the elderly at a rest home. After that he worked in a pharmacy and then eventually became a nurse. He discussed his love and respect for the elderly and passion for helping others. Now, Koor visits Southern Sudan and trains others in medical care at a clinic that he opened. After we learned the background of this courageous and giving person, dinner began and we all grabbed at the burgers and hot dogs.

            People listened intently as stories from across the world were shared over clanking plates, laughter, and giggling gibberish of toddlers. Placing this atmosphere in the background, my soon-to-be friend and I began conversation with one another. At that moment, where we came from and what experiences we had didn’t matter; the distinction of “us” versus “them” did not exist, it was just me and another person I just met engaging in conversation. We started out light, talking about how amazing our smart phones were after noticing we have the same kind. Of course, I had to ask him about the most American thing I have ever known, McDonalds. Koor described how weird his first burger was at the golden arches. He said it didn’t taste like real food, which I told him not to worry because it isn’t. But now, every time Koor enters an airport he heads straight for McDonalds.  He actually shares a favorite with me, double-quarter pounder with fries. As we moved deeper into our talk I gave some self-disclosure. I told him how moved I was with his use of positive thought and how I used it as well to overcome problems in my life (of course telling him that mine were nothing in comparison). We continued on, relating to topics such as how different girls are from guys and the fine art of brewing beer. We laughed, we joked, and we high-fived. Dinner ended, we all played a card game, and then said our farewells.

            Before our dinner I was nervous. Other than asking these gentlemen questions about their past how in the world would I relate? My conversation with Koor got rid of that worry. He was different than me from what he has been through and how he has dealt with it. But, the similarities he and I uncovered made me learn we were also the same. Whether it was the love for tasty french-fries, smart phone technology, or the respect we have for our elders, Koor and I were just two people, chatting away towards a friendship that I will always cherish. The lights flickered off as I fell asleep in my camper, happy that I had dinner with close friends and family. 


Jon Laboy 

Let’s have a toast for the Lost Boys!

Once upon a time there was a mom and a two year old baby girl who had just moved to Phoenix, Arizona from Africa. They were Somalian but the baby girl was born in a refugee camp in Kakuma. This baby girl was the sassiest girl in all of the lands. The baby had never seen white people before she came to America so she thought that the white people wanted to eat her and went and grabbed a knife for protection. This is just one example of hardships that refugees face when they come to America. Besides not knowing how to do basic things such as take a shower or use a stove, they are not used to American people or culture in general. 

Throughout the week we have learned about a variety of refugees from different countries. Through informal interviews we were able to add to the knowledge we had already gained in our SCOM 318 class with “Professor Aaron” as the Lost Boys call him. When we spoke to a middle aged Cuban couple and their daughters we learned that they had to travel to nine different countries before being able to get to America. They also had to climb mountains and ditch some of their belongings because they were too heavy. As a 21 year old I cannot imagine having to climb mountains to survive, yet alone when I’m older. The couple said they wanted to come to America because their daughters wanted better opportunities for their careers. One was a teacher and one was an engineer. 

One family from the Congo had just come to America before Christmas in 2012. They were a family of 12 people and they were separated into two apartments, 7 miles apart. Families in African cultures are very tight knit. Teenagers don’t usually move away from their parents until they’re married. Because of this, the older sons would walk 7 miles everyday to visit their mother in the other apartment. 

After meeting with the many refugee families and the Sudanese people at the Lost Boys center and at church, we have all been inspired by their optimism. All of the refugees know the importance of education and want to be doctors and accountants. Many even said American schooling was easier than their school back home! 

Seeing how eager the refugees were to take classes and learn to be able to get a good job and make a difference is inspiring. Every day JMU students complain about classes such as gen ed art history and science because really, when are we ever going to use it? But it makes us appreciate the fact that those classes will allow us to graduate and get a job in the field that we are interested in. So, let’s have a toast for the Lost Boys (and all the refugees) for being such optimistic and caring people. A toast for being brave. And a toast for more peace in the future. These toasts will happen at Corgan’s Irish Pub on Wednesday in Harrisonburg, VA and you are all welcome to come! 🙂


The Lost Boys


This week has been an incredible adventure.  The people we have met this week have been so inspiring; I will never forget them.  Today was the perfect way to bring this week to an end.  Although the weather turned rainy and dreary, we made the best of it; we couldn’t hike with the Lost Boys as was originally planned, but just spending time with the Lost Boys was perfect.  When we arrived at the Lost Boys Center, Jany took us to Food Truck Fridays.  It was delicious!  We then watched a documentary that filmed Kuol returning to South Sudan.  It was incredibly emotional watching Kuol reunite with his family.  His happiness quickly turned to sadness when he found the area where his mom and dad were most likely buried.  I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like to experience that. 

It was so powerful being able to hear their stories.  It was amazing how open they are and how willing they are to share their stories.  We could ask them anything and they would answer without hesitation.  They just wanted to be heard; they want their stories to be known.  The world needs to hear and see these stories; even though South Sudan has gained their independence, the battle is not over.  

It is not easy to build a new country.  The foundation needs to be set, but the tribal disagreements are still occurring.  We can do our part by spreading the word, writing to our senators, and letting everyone know that attention needs to be given to South Sudan.  Just because they have their own country, doesn’t mean we can turn our backs on them.  We need to find a balance between letting South Sudan have its independence and run their own country and providing help when needed.  South Sudan will have a tough couple of years.  

Spending the day with Jany was the perfect way to end our trip.  We just talked and hung out like we were old friends.  We asked him questions, joked with him, and spent the day laughing, enjoying each other’s company.  By the time we left, it truly felt that we had gained brothers.  

What the Lost Boys have gone through is enough to break any human.  But, instead of letting it break them, the Lost Boys that we met on this trip have turned their devastating experiences into positivity.  It is impossible not to be happy when you are around the Lost Boys.  They are full of happiness and joy.  They are truly an inspiration.  I cannot wait until we meet again.  The trip may be coming to an end, but the friendships, lessons, and experiences will continue.  This is just the beginning.