It was 24-year-old Matthew Greene’s first week as the youth leader at a church in Harlem when he was tasked with planning a birthday party for Mohammed Ndiaye — an orphan, newly 14. The pair fell into an easy friendship. However, the instability of the foster care system meant that Mohammed was soon moved to a different home in a new neighborhood. Phone numbers and families expired with regularity, and the two young men fell completely out of contact.
Years later, Matthew was at the train station on 135th Street in downtown Manhattan when he looked up to see his former youth group charge. They exchanged numbers and started getting lunch together every week or two. The connection was casual but meaningful. Despite this happy reunion, things were still hard for Mohammed, who was being shifted from home to home with a complete lack of stability.
Matthew decided to take action. He decided to become Mohammed’s foster father.
Hoping a declaration of intent would lead to a quick resolution, Matthew sought Mohammed’s caseworker and said he wanted to be the young man’s foster father. Alas, it was still six months of red tape and court dates before the foster son was able to move in with his foster dad. Along the way, the duo faced serious skepticism.
“There isn’t a precedent for the kind of situation Mohammad and I have,” Matthew explains. “It’s not anything anyone is used to, so we were inventing the rules ourselves, which I think is one reason why the process took a while. It’s not a traditional, foster parent, foster child relationship. It’s its own thing.”
Even with this new, more stable home life, Mohammed felt unmoored. He wanted to learn about his history — and his new foster father was excited to help.
Compared to the foster care system, finding a way to connect Mohammed with his heritage was a breeze. When Matthew stumbled into a link to the Passport Project, he was presented with an opportunity that felt crafted for Mohammed and him. The travel initiative asked people to pick a stigmatized nation they would like to visit and to nominate a traveling companion without a passport. Then the organization would send the nominee and the nominator to the nation they chose.
Matthew discussed the grant with Mohammed, and the two decided to apply. As for where to go, they immediately settled on Senegal, as it is the native country of Mohammed’s biological family.
“We had the conversation where we said, ‘If we don’t win this, we should figure out a way to go anyway,’” Matthew explains. “We started planning what we wanted to do, and the process of applying made it even clearer this is a trip that Mohammed had to take.”