The Light Inside

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.

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “The Light Inside”

  1. It is very jarring to me as well, every time I travel to Italy or Southern Europe, I notice the migrants. I’ve been to Rome twice in the past 8 years and noticed there were more people loitering in all the parks and near the Colosseum than before. As a nonwhite immigrant myself, I am often treated in the negative ways asylum seekers, refugees or migrant workers are treated. People complain that they/we are trying to exploit the system, but they don’t realize (or care) that these people are being thoroughly exploited in far worse ways (no safety, menial wages, no security, no insurance). I look at these people and I feel incredible lucky to live in much more fortunate circumstances.

    1. Thanks so much for reading. Your comments bring a very valuable and often ignored side to the story. Yes, exploitation runs deep for all sides. I’m sorry to hear that you have also found yourself at the receiving end of such treatment and misconceptions. Thankfully we have voices like your own to bring balance and awareness to the world. That’s definitely how I left Rome feeling too, much more grateful for what I have. Thanks again, always wonderful to have you as part of the discussion! 🙂

  2. As I read this post, I thought also how fortunate you were to notice Henry outside of his label and to have your visitor’s experience of Rome changed by your interaction with him.

    1. Thanks so much, yes I hadn’t thought about it in exactly that way, but you’re definitely right 🙂 At the time, I egotistically thought I might have been placed there to have some sort of positive impact on Henry, but now I see it was the other way around. Really appreciate your comment!

  3. Yes, quite a twist when we open ourselves up to learning life’s mmajor lessons from those we thought were inferior in some way. As a middle class American (whatever that means), I’ve found traveling and living abroad to be the best education I could possibly give myself, plus an incredibly humbling personal experience. Thanks for sharing your insightful post!

    1. Hi Henry (very app name!), thanks so much for reading and sharing your experience. ‘Humbling’ is definitely the right word. Is there one country where you think you’ve had more learning experiences than others or is spread quite evenly?

  4. Sorry to take so long to respond. I don’t think I could ever be more affected than I was during 8 years of living in the Arabian Gulf, constantly surrounded by the poorest of the poor–those S. Asian workers who leave their families–some for their entire lives–just to be able to send money back home so their families can buy rice. Most of the men (and women who work as maids) performing manual labor in that part of the world sacrifice everything so that their families can eat. I’m sure homeless Henry in Rome came to Europe hoping to be able to do the same for his family back in Africa. What a sad situation for him to find himself in, but the human spirit is amazing with its will to survive.

    I’m living in Colombia right now, a country which has absorbed more than a million Venezuelan refugees over the past 18 months. There were already too few jobs for the local Colombians so this is placing hardships on many communities (but of course it isn’t affecting the top 1% who own most of the wealth here).

    Keep writing about your experiences so that we can make others aware. There’s so much unnecessary suffering in the world.

    1. I’m really grateful for your reply Henry and for sharing your experiences in the Arabian Gulf. Witnessing the sacrifice of the S. Asian workers must have definitely made a huge impact. I saw something like that in Hong Kong in regards to the Filipino domestic workers, many of whom were trained professionals back home but in HK were doing the most menial of tasks, and sadly often abused by their employers. Yes Henry’s situation is very sad indeed and puts my own self-created problems into perspective.

      Columbia must be a fascinating and complex country, not least for the situation you mentioned. I admire your writing on human rights and your insights on the cultures you’ve encountered. Please keep up your good work too.

Leave a Reply to Abraham Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: