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Omaha Magazine

An American In Samoa: Laika Lewis’ Adventures in Peacekeeping

Apr 15, 2020 12:50PM ● By Chris Bowling

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As the car careened down the coast, scenes of exotic nature surrounded the young woman in the passenger seat. 

Dark thickets of brush transformed into expansive views of a blue tropical ocean. People on horseback passed the early-2000s, white Nissan four-door as dogs and feral pigs crossed the coastal byway. 

Laika Lewis, then a 22-year-old from Omaha, found the verdant scenes of Samoa entrancing.

“It’s the most green you’ve ever seen,” said Lewis, who volunteered with the Peace Corps on the island country off the coast of Australia for two years. 

And while Lewis experienced beauty in sunrises over the ocean and swimming under waterfalls, that’s not the story she tells about Samoa.

Instead, it’s the story of a mother who raised her children to care about their community and a daughter who took that propensity for change global. It spans North Omaha and small island villages, as well as a plan for the future that expands the picture even further. At its base, the story is about empathy, that the world is better off when people work to understand one another.

“Human value and dignity doesn’t just come from how efficient and productive you can be, or how much money you can have,” Lewis said. “Just you being human is valuable enough. You being alive is worthy enough.”

For as long as Lewis can remember, her family focused on giving back. At 6, she sacrificed Saturdays to hand out hot chocolate on winter days or help with backpack drives at the Salvation Army.

It was important to Lewis’ mother, Shekita Lewis, who moved to Omaha from a small Alabama town in 1978 as a toddler. By 8 years old, Shekita spent her Saturdays picking up trash around the Logan Fontenelle apartments where they lived or other areas in North Omaha.

When Shekita had kids of her own, she not only instilled the importance of service hours, she made them mandatory. However, she didn’t have to push Lewis to complete them.

One winter morning Shekita told her daughter it was too cold and they could skip volunteering this time. Lewis, around 9, fired back.

“She said, ‘No mom we’re going,’” Shekita remembered. “‘These people depend on us, we have to go.’”

Laika continued that dedication to volunteering and service into high school at Duchesne Academy and later at Grinnell College in Iowa.

When she graduated in 2017, Lewis wanted to take the next step in volunteering. The Peace Corps, a government agency that’s sent 235,000 volunteers to provide social and economic development abroad, stood out. She liked that, unlike other programs, its volunteers only go where they’re requested and work on projects the country identifies. It also ensures volunteers show respect and deference to the country.

“You’re not there to be an American,” she said. “You are there to fully integrate and become a part of that community.”

She applied in December 2016 and was accepted the following May. In late September, she and 16 others gathered in Houston, Texas, to make the nearly 6,000-mile journey to the island.

The country of narrow coasts, rocky mountains, and lush forests consists of two islands that together are only about two-thirds the size of Rhode Island.

The group spent three months learning the language, culture, and what they would need to know to survive while living as the only American in their host community.

That isolation gets to some volunteers. Lewis said one girl flew home without even making it 24 hours on the island. She questioned why she was there at times, especially seeing friends’ social media posts of Fourth of July parties while it was just another work day in Samoa.

New experiences kept her invested.

In Samoa, the community does everything together, she said. If someone wants to spend time alone, everyone else assumes they’re sick. And while some volunteers needed that personal space, Lewis tried to say yes to everything.

“If you come to the table open and willing to say yes to anything, you’ll be okay,” she said. “It might be 80, 90 degrees out, but I’m going to sit here and drink this hot chocolate because that’s what the family is doing.”

Other times were harder. In the middle of a cyclone, Lewis struggled in the throes of dengue fever, a common disease in Samoa transmitted by mosquitos. Her mom remembers talking to her on the phone later and telling her she could come home. But even then, she didn’t waver. “’Mom,’” she remembers her daughter saying, “‘they need me.’”

During her time in Samoa, Lewis saw immense growth in her students, not only in their ability to speak English, but also in their comprehension of the language and confidence in themselves.

Lewis remembers meeting one student through a leadership group she ran for young girls. The quiet, shy 11-year-old didn’t speak much English, and even in Samoan her communication was guarded.

As Lewis mentored her, the girl became more outspoken. She went from the back of her church choir to standing in the front, from barely speaking to singing a solo in front of the village in a foreign language.

When it came time for Lewis to leave, the girl embraced her, tears streaming down her face.

“I’m going to miss you so much,” Lewis remembers the girl telling her in perfect English.

Those are the memories Lewis brought to Omaha when she returned this January, and her mom can tell the difference it’s made.

“She was so much more mature, matter of fact, knew what she wanted,” her mother said. “She wasn’t taking anything for granted, she was grabbing the bull by the horns and running with it.”

In March, Lewis began her next journey, a job as a site coordinator and program manager at Central Texas College at Camp Buehring, but she took time to reflect on Samoa and how it relates to the career path she’s trying to carve out.

Lewis’ aim is to become a doctor and start an organization that accredits hospitals, clinics, and doctors based on the equity of their care—the “Lewis stamp of approval,” she imagines.

This has all connected her to the values her mom instilled as a child: community and giving yourself to a cause greater than any one person. Around the world, the community might be bigger, the opportunities to make a difference grander, but the driving force remains the same.

“You get to see the true dignity and heart within people,” she said. 

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This article first appeared in the May 2020 issue of Omaha Magazine