I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have.
– Abraham Lincoln
I’m almost back at my hostel when I see him leaning by the entrance to a shopping arcade. Perhaps it’s the frazzled way he rubs his eyes and face that connects with me. I’m used to seeing that exhaustion in people sleeping rough and know it well from my own nomadic existence. Feeling a sudden kinship, I cross the road towards him.
I ask him how it’s going. He looks surprised, then grins and turns his profile against the bright blue sky. Two men in suits walk past into the shopping arcade and say buongiorno. It isn’t that cold for February but I see several layers beneath his thin jacket. Henry is from Senegal in West Africa. For the past year hes been trying to find work in here in Rome. Many get jobs illegally, he tells me, but he doesn’t want to go that way. When I ask where he’s staying he replies, “At the camp,” and rubs his eyes again.
If you arrive at Rome’s Termini Station, you might be surprised to see large numbers of African migrants. It wasn’t the first thing I’d expected when, three days earlier, I stepped off the airport bus, buzzing for my first glimpse of the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain and The Vatican. Some migrants were chatting with each other, or on their phones, others sleeping on benches or guarding piles of luggage and looking as if they were neither coming nor going.
After some Googling, I learnt that hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers make for Italy each year. Many don’t survive the sea voyage. Now Rome is struggling to cope with the influx, which has lead to frustration and sometimes violent resentment on both sides. Many end up homeless after the asylum process. Like those I saw sleeping in a 24 hour McDonald’s one night, hunched over trays of empty food wrappers, plastic bags and trolleys besides them. It brought back the few miserable times I’ve tried to sleep in McDonald’s to save on the cost of a hostel or hotel.
Henry is young and determined, but I want to say something encouraging. The best I come up with is to ask who his heroes are. “Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln,” he says. When I tell him my name is Abraham we laugh. “Don’t let me down,” I joke.
I hear Italian next to me. It’s November. I’m looking out of a coffee shop window onto a wet, London street. A good day to let my mind go on holiday. Back to the splendour of Rome’s piazzas, monuments and that terrifying, crumbling arena. But when I’m done with that, I’m with Henry again, outside the arcade. His eyes are blazing with a fire I can’t quite understand and I ask myself for the hundredth time, what about me, what’s driving me? Besides the list of petty problems and rituals I haul from city to city? Maybe I travel for no other reason than to feed my first-world habits and addictions. What would it be like to leave all that for something better? To risk everything, like Henry and live up to the light that’s inside me?
If Henry were to ask me who my hero is, I know what I would say.