A small, beaten up foosball table stood in the center of the otherwise sparsely decorated room, attracting a large crowd of intensely competitive men and serving as the preferred mode of entertainment for individuals at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center. Its bearings were rusty and one of the rows of players had to be operated by abandoning the broken handle and crudely grabbing the players’ plastic bodies. Neverthetheless, the old table occupied at least half of the gathered community and kept the mood light for the rest of the individuals at the center, who were chatting in small isolated groups or just sitting quietly. They were all male.
Two men sat near the foosball table, quietly observing the games in front of them. They were close enough to share in the fun, but too removed to get more than a glance at the actual game. I approached them and had to step between the two to grab a chair off the stack. They looked up, smiling, and motioned for me to sit down. Though I would like to say that we dove into an intensely storied conversation, the first few minutes were fairly uneventful and marked by large pauses of silence between short sentences and large hand gestures. Unfortunately, both men were fluent only in French and Italian.
Fortunately, it was not long before another fellow visitor joined the conversation in French. I tried to follow along as best I could. The man on my left was named Gauss, while the man on my right had a name which I was totally unable to reproduce or commit to memory. They were very different. Gauss was the more chatty one; he smiled a lot and leaned in to motion with his hands. Guy with the hard name mostly just sat in his chair, arms crossed. I liked to imagine that he also had an impossible time following the French, but he was probably just confidential.
My glorious entrance into the conversation came when the French visitor said he was “vingt.” In an epiphany, I immediately latched onto this sound, which comprised all my assumptions about what “twenty” sounded like in French. I chimed in, saying that I was also was twenty and, having missed Gauss’ earlier answer to the same question, asked how old he was. He raised his hands and in a slightly exasperated tone repeated and that he, too, was twenty!
This was immediately surprising to me for two reasons. For one, I had been vastly overestimating Gauss’ age up to that point. More than that, though, he was not just ‘not old,’ but was actually my age– and while I’m happy with the things I’ve done during my twenty years, they are a far cry from leaving your family, escaping your country, and traveling thousands of miles (through the world’s largest desert and across the sea in an inflatable raft) to arrive in a country which despises the French language.
At this point, the French conversation began to run out of steam and I began to strike up more of a one-on-one conversation with Gauss in English. It was far from smooth, but it was enough to get by. He was from Senegal and had been living in Italy for two years. I was surprised, however, to learn he had only been living in Rome for a week. A continual theme of our conversation was about how there was “no work.” I was later told that over 95% of the people who visit JNR do not have employment.
Gauss had no money and no job. He was homeless. The clothes he was wearing were provided by JNRC and if he didn’t sleep on the streets it was because JNRC had found some sort of shelter. “Eat, sleep, eat, sleep, eat sleep” he would say.
“Eat, sleep, eat, sleep, eat sleep”
He was sure of one thing, however: He wanted to eventually make it to America. “Everybody says America is good. Africans, Europeans, Pakistanis … all say ‘good’.” He raised up two fingers and said “two years, I will go to America.” My heart sank as I wondered if he realized how difficult that goal would be to accomplish. On the outside, however, I smiled right back at him, gave him a big high five, and said, “I’ll see you there!”
Shortly after, Gauss stood up to join his friends at the foosball table. In that moment, I realized a youth in him that I did not perceive when first began talking. What I initially assumed to be a weathered homeless man actually turned out to be a boy my age, and while he had already seen things in his life that I could hardly imagine, his demeanor was punctuated by a beaming smile and untarnished ambitions. He shuffled over to the crowded foosball table and eventually found a spot on the periphery like a boy among his siblings. I spent the next few minutes watching Gauss with new appreciation and trying to visualize the odyssey that would be traveling to the United States.
Suddenly, I smiled. For the first time I noticed the contents of his ragged t-shirt, which had most definitely been provided by the refugee center. In the center was an image of two dirty sneakers that desperately needed cleaning, and just to the left, emblazoned on his chest, the shirt read “I’m walking to Chicago.” I quickly pointed at it and yelled to Gauss, who glanced down, smiled, and gave me two huge thumbs up.