How A Travel Grant Gave One Young Man The Chance To Revisit His Roots In Senegal

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.”

Mohammed hadn’t remained close to his family after being placed in foster care, and it left him feeling adrift. He was excited to experience his culture first hand.

“Growing up, I saw a lot of other Senegalese people,” he says. “In passing, I would hear them speak in French, and I always felt like ‘Oh man, that hurts.’ That is a part of me that I don’t know. I should be able to do that, and I can’t.”

The pair were aware that African countries and Muslim majority countries, like Senegal, were often viewed negatively in the US. But that fact was driven home when the travel ban went into effect during their trip. Flying back from Morocco, they had to check their cameras and an iPad, something that hadn’t been the case on their flight to Senegal.

Contrary to government fear-mongering, the two men had a placid experience. They arrived during Ramadan and were pulled into that practice immediately.

“It was a really beautiful thing and a really beautiful facet of the trip,” said Matthew. They were amazed to see the fast broken after sunset on the side of the road with bread and coffee. Anyone could walk up and join in the repast. It struck them as profoundly moving.

“It was seeing this religious culture that united everybody in such a beautiful way. I wish more Americans had the experience of being able to see that and being able to see that it’s not a scary thing,” Mohammed says.

The father-son travel team spent a few days in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, and were most struck by Ile de Gorée, a small island accessible by ferry. Despite tourists being aware of the area, it’s still largely ignored, enabling them to walk streets lined by colonial residences and business in relative peace. Walking among tall plaster edifices bleached pastel by the equatorial sun, they watched residents and tourists in swimsuits and wraps slowly make their way through the town. At the beach, these same people laughed and splashed, exploring the many rocky outcroppings that dot the shore.

Among the buildings they visited on the mainland was the Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves), memorializing the final exit slaves took when leaving West Africa. The first UNESCO World Heritage site in Africa, the large red house overlooks Dakar and centers on a door flanked by staircases. This is called the Door of No Return — which an ex-curator of the on-site museum claims more than a million slaves passed through. Whether or not that is true, the locale is clearly evocative, giving impetus to valuable discussions about the region’s horrifying colonialist history.

“For me,” Mohammed said with a low voice. “It was definitely one of the most powerful things we did during the trip. Everything is still there the way it was during slavery. Hearing the stories about it and seeing it for myself was the most emotional thing ever. Yeah. It was heavy.”

The surfing culture of Ile de Ngor took the pair by surprise. They hadn’t expected a mostly black, Muslim surfing community. Just the same, they were greeted by dozens of men and women sitting on their boards, riding the undulating ocean waters. Mohammed described feeling like he was in Hawaii, rather than Africa. Though the architecture struck the pair, as did the stories they heard about the people who live on the island, it was the collaborative work ethic that resonated most.

“It was as if everyone was working with everyone else,” Matthew said. “It’s hard to explain it but it wasn’t like anyone necessarily had a formal job; they made things happen and made sure that any money made was shared with each other equally, which was cool.”

In this story of an intentional family, the part of the trip that resonates most deeply is the connection the two travelers made with Mohammed’s birth family. Prior to the trip, Mohammed made a call to his biological father, who connected him to his uncles and grandmother in Senegal. This allowed him to set up a visit. He was invited to the home of a relative and surrounded by his grandma, aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins, as they spoke to his father on Skype. Even neighbors and family friends gathered around, anxious to meet Mohammed and take part in his Senegal experience, to be a part of the identity that he found there.

Though he was inspired by the trip and able to better determine who he is and where he comes from, a few reservations remain. A language barrier made it difficult to communicate and left Mohammed wondering if it will be possible to keep in touch. About future dealings with all the members of his biological family, he remains cautious.

“It didn’t give me a relationship with my dad or fix anything for me, not everything in my life,” he says. “But, it feels like it fills that void of not knowing who I am. I was able to meet my family for the first time and embrace a culture that is my culture.”

And he was able to do it for free — with help from a generous grant — in the company of a foster father, who he loves like a brother.