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.
If you were to arrive at Rome’s Termini Station, the city’s main tourist drop-off point, you might be surprised to see large numbers of African migrants milling around. It wasn’t the first thing I’d expected to see when, three days earlier, I stepped off the airport bus in Rome for the first time, buzzing with images of the Colosseum, Trevi Fountain and The Vatican. Some migrants were chatting together intently, or busy on their phones. Others were sleeping on benches or standing besides piles of luggage, looking as if they were neither coming nor going.
Some Googling later, I learnt how each year hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers make for Italy’s shores. Many don’t survive the voyage. Now Rome is struggling to cope with the influx, leading to frustration and increasingly violent resentment on all sides. Many asylum seekers and refugees drift into disappointment as they find themselves homeless after the asylum process. I saw for myself, late one night, how migrants were using a twenty four hour McDonald’s as a place to sleep. Their hunched figures, drooped over trays of empty burger wrappers, brought back the few miserable times I’ve tried to sleep in McDonald’s to save the cost of a hostel or hotel.
“How’s it going?” I ask.
He looks surprised, then grins and turns his profile against the bright blue sky. Two men in suits walk past us into the shopping arcade and say buongiorno. It isn’t that cold for February but I see several layers beneath his thin, ill fitting jacket. Henry is from Senegal in West Africa. For the past year he has been trying to find work in Rome. Many get jobs illegally, Henry tells me, but he doesn’t want to go that route. Then I ask where he’s staying. “At the camp,” he says and rubs his eyes again.
Henry is young and determined, but I want to say something encouraging. I feel the five euro note in my trouser pocket. Failing to think of anything better, I ask who his heroes are. “Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln,” he says. When I tell him my name is Abraham we both laugh. “Don’t let me down,” I joke.
I hear Italian next to me. It’s November. I’m looking out of an Italian coffee shop window onto a drab, wet London street. It’s a good day to let my mind go on holiday. Back to the splendour of Rome’s piazzas and monuments. Once more to that crumbling arena and the echoes of fifty thousand blood-hungry cries. But when I’m done with that, I’m back with Henry, outside the shopping arcade, and I see his eyes blazing with a fire I’ll probably never fully understand. And I ask myself, yet again, what’s burning inside me, besides the list of petty problems and rituals I haul from city to city? Perhaps 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? What would it be like 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.