Kindness, Communion & Tuna
John Delap, Office of the Provost
2019-2020 Staff Essay Contest
“Excuse me, sir. Is the entrance to Montgomery open?” asks Ahmed, in perfect English.
“Montgomery?” spits out the middle-aged francophone, with some difficulty.
“I’m sorry, sir,” says Ahmed, with infinite patience and grace. “Montgomery. The Metro station.”
A blank stare.
It is unclear whether this hesitation is due to Ahmed’s speaking a language not native to Belgium or because this man is simply unaccustomed to being approached on a dark street at 5 a.m.
Finally, a reply: “Ohhh, Monn-gum-airr-eee. Oui, oui. It’s open.”
I resist explaining to this man that Field Marshal Montgomery was a British Army officer who surely did not pronounce his own name with a French accent.
Of course, to Ahmed, wise well beyond his seventeen years, this is immaterial. He grins with delight that he has been understood.
“Mercy bow-coo, mess-yeur,” Ahmed gamely ventures, half bowing his skinny frame. “Thank you very much.”
And we take off towards Montgomery, my mind imagining if one day a Brussels Metro stop would ever be named after an Eritrean like Ahmed.
We are headed to the Petit Château, as the headquarters of the Belgian Asylum Bureau is called. The irony is not lost on the multilingual asylum seekers who queue in the dark cold outside the building each morning, many without shelter, much less a small castle in which to lay their heads.
Ahmed stands closer to me than normal.
“I saw those boys at Gare du Nord,” he whispers, referencing the squalid train station he and hundreds of other migrants called home all winter.
He discreetly cocks his head in the direction of three males twice his size who are clearly well beyond boyhood.
“They stole my sandwich.”
I nod. Nodding is the height of what I can offer Ahmed. He arrived at our house in central Brussels after a Tigre-speaking Franciscan priest contacted my roommate to ask if we could spare a bed.
Ahmed, the priest shared, missed his mother and two sisters, who live in a refugee camp in Sudan. Ahmed missed his father, who lives in exile in Saudi Arabia.
And Ahmed missed being a teenager. The bright light that shines behind Ahmed’s eyes in the all- too-rare moments he loses himself in discussions of football and food with other young Tigre speakers reveals a youthful innocence that the daily realities of life force him to keep hidden in order to survive.
Many of these young Eritreans express a desperate hope to go back to high school and, eventually, university. Ahmed is no different. He was forced to leave school when his family, out of their own desperation, decided to send him to Europe. Belgium was intended to be a temporary stopover on the way to England. He was fixated on England because he already spoke some English and had some distant relatives there with whom he could stay while the asylum process played out.
The challenge of finding a way into England undetected ultimately proved to be a bigger challenge than learning French, and Ahmed, acutely aware that he would soon become an adult in the eyes of European law, finds himself waiting in the early morning outside the Petit Château’s “Welcome Center.”
It is cold. At 6 a.m. (a full three hours before the Welcome Center doors open), Vluchtelingenwerk volunteers arrive and start passing out paper cups of tea and stroopwafels. A young volunteer with knowing eyes gives Ahmed a long look.
“Do you speak French?” she asks, perhaps too directly.
“No,” whispers Ahmed, looking at his shoes with no small degree of shame.
“How old are you?”
“And where are you staying?”
Brightening up, Ahmed replies: “With my brother, Mr. John.”
Now it is my turn to look at my shoes, embarrassed. He persists in using “Mr.” despite my daily protestations.
The volunteer nods slowly. “Drink that tea before it goes cold,” she urges us. And we do, the hot sweetness giving both of us more comfort than the eventual suffocating heat inside the Petit Château.
For five hours, Ahmed navigates the dehumanizing bureaucracy with a humble smile, warmly thanking every official we meet in both French and Dutch. The smile only drops when it is all over and we are walking back through the jarring quotidian bustle of Brussels’ city streets.
Ahmed, ever the gentleman, softly wishes me a good afternoon at work, saying he wants to lie down for a while. I cannot even tempt him with a lunch of fresh frites.
At my office, colleagues inquire how the morning had gone.
“Byzantine Belgian bureaucracy is only comical when your humanity is not called into question,” I reply.
Struggling to find the words, I speak of Ahmed’s serenity through it all and his profound faith in what Allah wills.
I have learned more from my friendship with Ahmed, I share with them, than anything I learned at university.
Around 6 p.m., a text arrives from Leen, my housemate: “Come home ASAP…there’s a surprise.”
As soon as I open the front door, the smell hits me. Leen’s face from across the room says it all. “Ahmed wanted to make you dinner,” she says, beaming.
Still silent, I put my bag down and slide into a seat at the table, all set, breadbasket full, tapers lit.
Ahmed pops up from the oven. “I hope it’s not cooked too much,” he says, placing a bubbling casserole dish on the table. “You said you like lasagna, so I looked it up and I made it. I’m sorry I had no money to buy meat, so I used tuna. I’m sorry, Mr. John, if it’s not good.”
The smell notwithstanding, Leen and I could have lit up New York City with our incandescent joy at this act of kindness.
I have no right to cry after all Ahmed has been through and would, we know, continue to face. But in this moment, the candles giving the room a flickering glow, it is hard to contain the lump in my throat.
Everyone sits down.
“Mr. John, Ms. Leen,” Ahmed says, his eyes expectant, “I know you usually say a prayer before you eat. I found a prayer in my language. I hope it is okay we pray this way today.”
I bow my head and swallow hard to keep from crying.
And Ahmed says grace.
The grace of this moment extends far beyond the words offered by Ahmed, our shared thanks for the food, and our deep appreciation for the hands that made it.
In this moment, not dissimilar to the moment of transubstantiation at a Catholic Mass, the air perfumed with its own pungent incense, tuna lasagna is transformed from a modest meal into a memorable manifestation of new and deep communion, leaving us changed, our lives richer for it.
After a contented silence, both to absorb the beauty of this moment of shared grace and, let’s be honest, to scout who would be brave enough to take the first bite of the strange-smelling sacrament before us, Leen inhales deeply and asks: “How was it today, Ahmed?”
Ahmed’s eyes shine with pride. “I learned how to pronounce Monn-gum-airr-eee in French,” he says, flashing the same satisfied grin he flashed the man this morning after having been understood.
Leen and I shake our heads, marveling at Ahmed’s earnestness.
“And you, John? What abides with you from today?”
“Well, I think I’ll never experience tuna the same way again.”