14 November 2012
THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN has a long tradition of bringing promising international students and scholars to Austin. By connecting these individuals to a broad network of resources and opportunities, these scholars bring global perspectives to Austin, while building new skills that empower them to make a real difference in the world.
Rehema Apio is one of these students that has emerged as a global citizen. Before earning a Ford Fellowship to travel half way across the world and complete a master’s degree in public health at The University of Texas at Austin, Rehema had already overcome obstacles that are difficult to imagine. Little did Rehema know when she set out to visit her home country for a research project in the summer of 2011, that the trip would change not only her own life, but also that of a man she would meet during her travels.
While driving through a remote Ugandan village with her brother, their car broke down. Among the group of people that stopped to help that day was local resident Sam Obura. As Sam helped the siblings, Rehema recognized she could help Sam as well. Sam had a ten-pound growth, known as a keloid, hanging from his chin. Rehema knew she could help her new friend and fellow Ugandan.
Two years before meeting Sam, while studying at The University of Texas at Austin, Rehema had struggled with insomnia, memory problems and fainting spells. While a diagnosis was never confirmed, Rehema’s friends wondered if she was suffering from stress related to trauma she had experienced back in Uganda. Several of Rehema’s family members were killed during Uganda’s civil unrest. As a result of injuries she suffered during that time, Rehema had herself developed smaller keloids, for which she received treatment when she came to Austin.
That day, Rehema thanked Sam for his time – and she made him a promise. She would send for him once back in the States, so that he could receive the medical treatment he needed. Rehema continued her travels that day – but she never forgot about Sam. Rehema’s plan was made more difficult by the fact that she had no way to directly contact Sam. Living in a small Ugandan village with his wife and six children, Sam did not have a telephone. Rehema was not deterred however. She contacted Sam through another local man who knew Sam, spoke English and had a cell phone.
Rehema worked for several months to secure Sam’s passport, pushing past the political corruption in her home country. The Ugandan passport office initially “lost” Sam’s passport application. Still, Rehema was undeterred – nothing would stop her from bringing her new friend to Austin for the treatment that would change his life. After three months of phone calls from the United States to Uganda, and an additional fee Rehema paid directly to the office clerk, Sam’s paperwork was finally found.
Now more determined than ever, Rehema continued advocating for Sam back in the States, asking her friends in Austin to help in any way they could to help pay for Sam’s plane ticket to the United States. The process was long and complicated, with some people telling her it would be impossible to bring Sam to the country – it was just too complicated. Rehema smiled kindly, ignoring their doubts, simply continuing to share her story with anyone who would listen. She kept pushing forward – her big smile, warm spirit and fiery determination winning her new advocates along the way.
In the end, Rehema brought together a diverse group of people who came to be known as “Sam’s Village,” individuals who were linked only through their friendship with Rehema and her unyielding drive to make a difference for a man she barely knew. Rehema worked on Sam’s behalf for over six months – from communicating with him through another local villager, to navigating an intensely political Ugandan bureaucracy, and finally, bringing together a diverse network of people in the United States who provided his support and care – a commitment to helping a fellow Ugandan that is nothing short of remarkable. And Rehema did even more, taking care of Sam once he was released from the hospital, changing his bandages and helping him navigate Austin’s public transit system, enabling him to receive necessary post-surgery care in the days and weeks following his procedure.
“I am so grateful for Rehema,” Sam said. “She kept her promise. She brought me to all these wonderful people. She helped me so much.”
Now, Rehema can finally relax – just a little. Forever humble, when asked what she learned from the incredible journey halfway around the world - and back again – on behalf of a man she barely knew, she replied, “God will find a way.”
Rehema Apio’s story is just one story of the hundreds across campus every year, stories that underscore the impact of providing the educational opportunities that transform lives and communities. The International Office at The University of Texas at Austin is proud to help international students and scholars use their passion and talent to change the world in ways big and small, just as Rehema did for Sam.
Written by Angie Pastorek
Photographs by Darcy McGillicuddy