During my morning commute, I normally have a strict routine, dashing through several important newsletters, and scanning through others. If I wanna treat myself, I may give in to a quick game of chess, played through an app. But not today.
Today I met a man, and the man had a story.
He was sitting next to me, and held a file with papers. They all said "OFII" at the top left, which is France's Office for Immigration and Integration. At some point, early on, he looked at me and asked in a tentative French intertwined with English where it was. I happen to work right next door.
I pointed at the subway station on the map.
"Thank you", he replied.
It could have ended there. In fact for a full minute it did.
I was holding a paper bag with my breakfast, 2 pastries. I wanted to offer one, but hesitated. I took a moment to observe him. He was dressed with a green coat, a pair of blue jeans, and beaten up leather shoes. A dark hat covered his head. Something friendly emanated from him, but I didn't want to offend him by offering food. For all I knew he had a home and had eaten. But that wasn't very realistic.
I pulled out a croissant, and handed it over to him. "You want?"
He put his hand to his heart, and said "Hmmm no."
I nodded and stretched my arm further, as if to say "It's yours if you want it." He took it and thanked me.
"Where are you from?"
"Somalia." He paused. "You know the history of Somalia?"
"Mogadishu." I replied, not really knowing what history he was referring to. The US invasion? The pirates? The constant civil war? Something else I had no clue of?
He smiled. "Yes Mogadishu, I come from there."
He went on to give me his story. He owned a business selling electronics in the capital. It wasn’t clear what. The government wanted him to stop. It wasn’t clear why. He could pay his way out of it, so that's that, but he refused, so they threatened him. He still refused. One day he walked out to get lunch. "Not even 15 minutes" he said. Just enough for his shop to go down in flames. Then his phone rang: "We knew you weren't inside, but next time you will be."
He reached the tipping point. People were moving North in droves. There was an opportunity to reach Europe, and he made a run for it. What could his future look like in Somalia? He thought of the abundance, wealth, and freedom. Right across the sea. All he had to do was get there, and it would be due to him. Or so he thought.
He left his country going North, through Ethiopia, then Sudan and up to Libya. Smugglers drove him through the night until he reached the coast. "You have to get on a boat" he said. "Once you're on a boat it's good, you cross or you die."
His eyes were dark. There was no light, no spark.
"When did you arrive?"
"This year. April. But now I want to go back."
"Back to Somalia?"
"Yes. You know, in Somalia, you live or you die."
He repeated: "Or you live, or you die." while making hand gestures as if to show the only 2 outcomes.
"But here? I can't live, and I can't die. Safe, but no life. OFII gives me €3-400 euros a month, so I go to find a job. Job tells me first you need address. So I go to find a home. But for home they say you don't have a job!"
He looked at me.
His hands had scars. The kind you get when a machete meets your flesh and stops when it hits bone, and the wound goes untreated for weeks, festering in the sun. He seemed beat. Like a man on the verge of giving up. He could have been anywhere in his 30s.
"What can I do?" he pursued. "Just survive, but no life. Now, I want to go back. They say Europe, life is good, life is easy, have job, send money to family.” He paused. “I find nothing. No job. No home. I sleep under a bridge."
He was ashamed of his situation. "The people are nice. Give me food, give me clothes, maybe money. Even kids are nice. But the government? No good. They don't care. I have nothing and I can’t do anything."
He went on to explain that some of those who return end up joining Al-Shabaab, a jihadist militant group. They lose belief. They become resentful. Europe betrayed them. The stable system which feeds and houses’ everyone. It doesn't work for them. Broken. Flawed. So why work for that upon returning, where they are also stuck at the bottom? Why not join forces with the opposition, and burn whatever there is to the ground?
Maybe in the next iteration they'll be on top. Or so they hope.
And yet, Adib has a greater control over his life than you and I. He has fewer connections, near to no possessions, and owes nothing to no one. He owns nothing but his life, and every single decision he makes is about it. And so tomorrow, he may be on a plane bound for Mogadishu, because he can, and you definitely can’t.
Nothing is something you don’t have, and it has the flavor of freedom.