Out of the Classroom, Still in Missoula (and loving it)

In High School, I studied abroad in Peru for a month of the summer of 2012. The experience was breathtaking. I learned more Spanish in a single month than I ever could have in the classroom, my understanding of other cultures and the U.S. expanded and I found greater confidence in myself. I joined GLI three years ago because I wanted to study abroad again. The essence of a study abroad experience is in its challenge to understand another culture and foreign environment and so I couldn’t imagine discovering that kind of experience here in the United States, let alone Missoula. And yet, I chose to fulfill my Out of Classroom experience right here in Missoula and feel that I have learned more about the world and myself than expected. I am working with Congolese refugees relocated here last September, helping them direct their own short films under the New Neighbors Project. This month two of those refugee directed films and the feature-length documentary of the project as a whole premieres (check the New Neighbors Project Facebook page or website, newneighborsmedia.org, for details) at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival!

The experience has pushed me to grow emotionally and professionally. Working within the nuances of a different cultural mindset requires an open heart, forgiveness and patience. Working with trauma requires empathy, but clear boundaries. My technical skills have improved and I’ve gained confidence in my abilities after working with a team of established filmmakers. I feel equipped to address my global theme, Social Inequality and Human Rights, beyond the scope of the New Neighbors Project. My challenge against Social Inequality and Human Rights is to think globally and act locally. I can see the positive impact this project is having on the refugee crisis and I see positive changes for the Missoula community. I met once a week with one of the directors to talk film and help with the camera, but I also helped him develop his English, practice driving (he passed the driver’s ed test on the first try!) and explore the city and community of Missoula. In this exchange I’ve acquired the tangible skills of some Swahili and French conversation and the recipes for ugali and sweet breads. Most importantly I’ve learned how to navigate the tricky ground of mistranslated conversations, informed consent and transparency in how to admit failure and celebrate success.

I want to encourage other students to complete their Out of the Classroom experience here in Missoula. The refugees need a lot of help and resources, but the call to action has seen an increase in programs and projects (like New Neighbors) that is strengthening our community and pushing us all to grow as a support network. This project has a huge production team and works closely with multiple organizations in Missoula to provide a well-rounded support network to the refugees. I am confident that there is just as much effort put towards other global issues like Climate Change and poverty at the local level here. After all, there are more than 1,200 registered local non-profits in Missoula. The director I work most closely with told me the other day that “Missoula is my home now”. I cannot express how strongly his words affect me. I am proud of Missoula and feel strength in this community to tackle global issues, one day at a time.

Missoula to Berlin

Week One

I started learning the second I stepped off the plane in Berlin. After what felt like days of flying, from Spokane to London then from London to Berlin, I immediately understood what jet lag was, that you have to pay to use most restrooms in Europe, and that water was most definitely not free (and never came with ice). Once I got over these feats, our first task was to make our way to the hostel from the airport using public transportation which was cheap, usually late, but not as hard to manage as I had expected. I met the full group at our hostel and, with no time to unpack or freshen up from the overnight journey, hit the streets of Berlin for a tour. We quickly learned that Berlin wasn’t just a big city in Germany. It’s a city with a long history of immigration, culture and art.

Street art in Berlin seen on a walking tour of the city

Street art in Berlin seen on a walking tour of the city

From the Turkish neighborhood next to our hostel to the many Syrians refugees already integrated, I was overwhelmed (in the best way) with different languages, food, cultures and customs. The first week was a whirlwind of struggling to order items off of menus, navigating the U-bahn and bus systems, and diving headfirst into the rich history of Berlin, complete with seeing the Berlin wall to learning about the history of world-famous clubs along the Spree.

Part of the Berlin Wall

Part of the Berlin Wall

In this first week, I learned more than I ever could have imagined traveling abroad, cultures different than mine, and we began to examine the refugee crisis, except this time close up and not from across the Atlantic safe in our classrooms.

 

Up-close: The refugee camps

Some of the most prominent days during the trip to Berlin were those when our group visited refugee camps. We’ve spent a year learning about refugees, trying to understand their struggles and the complicated asylum process, and when it came time to listing off the facts of the refugee crisis, many of us felt proficient and well-educated about the crisis. However, when it came to experiencing what it was really like to be one of these individuals with unique scenarios, we were clueless. After an hour bus ride and a mile walk out of Berlin, we arrived at a refugee camp.

Interviewing workers at a refugee camp

Interviewing workers at a refugee camp

Clothes hung up to dry on a fence at the often over-crowded refugee camp

Clothes hung up to dry on a fence at the often over-crowded refugee camp

We immediately met men, women and children who are often shown as victims simply demanding German resources in the media. Either they’re depicted as evil Muslims coming to take jobs and spread Islam, or they’re shown as victims leeching off the system of a wealthy country. While we knew it was much more complicated than that, even just speaking with a few people changed our perspective. We met people who loved the camp and others who hated the plumbing. Some were wondering why a group of American students with cameras were allowed to come in (which we sometimes wondered too) and others were thrilled to have their picture taken, posing with peace signs and posting selfies with us to Facebook. Suddenly they weren’t just “the refugees” as we’ve discussed in class so much as one collective group. “The refugees” suddenly became individuals. They became Amir, one of our translators, who was ecstatic because he’d just been granted the opportunity to move out of his refugee camp that he’s called home for years into a real home in Berlin. They became children not older than 10 who quickly overshadowed us as they showed off the four languages they spoke — embarrassing compared to our English. As we walked through the refugee camps, expecting crying and despair, we were surprised to find children playing soccer in the yard, taking selfies with their iPhones, and wearing designer clothes they brought with them on their trip from Syria. These were people. People who one day had to leave their homes and come to Germany, while we were coming to Germany because we wanted to broaden our education, not because we had to.

 

Wrapping things up

The second and third weeks in Berlin were busy with real, on the ground, international journalism. With half of our phones not working on our German SIM card plans and more than half of us knowing how to speak German (not to mention Arabic or Farsi), we quickly learned to adapt. After a few stress-induced breakdowns and loads of help from our advisors, we were on to producing our final project on a deadline, with not-so-great WiFi, in a foreign country, on a subject we knew nothing about a few months ago.

Going over the final edits. Photo by Shane McMillian

Going over the final edits. Photo by Shane McMillian

With the quotes from the doctors, politicians, refugees and others in Berlin, advice from Shane, Henriette and Larry, insight and help from our translators who were also refugees, and support from newfound friends in the group (which was bound to happen when after living in close quarters for nearly a month) we produced a final portfolio-worthy project we all can be proud of. Not only did we get to study and research a migration event that will be historically significant for years, we also got a chance to practice real journalism outside of the classroom, both of which will affect my life for the better in years to come as a journalist and traveler.