“Have you been to Brindisi?”
His eyes grow wide, he smiles, and there is recognition.
“Of course! Brindisi, Izmir, Haifa, Ashdod, Piraeus, everywhere!
“My father is from Egypt.”
“He is, really?”
“Yes. My family is Jewish, they were forced to leave Egypt in the late 1950s when the country was nationalized.”
His traveler’s eyes – which have seen every port of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf – remain wide.
“My grandmother and her second husband – he was in the shipping business – they moved from Alexandria to Venice. Then to Beirut, then to Haifa, and then to Brindisi. She lived 50 years in Brindisi and is buried there.”
“Brindisi is at the very bottom of Italy. I have been there many times.”
“Yes, on the edge of the heel of the boot. I visited her there.”
He was a ship’s captain for thirteen years. Large ships, ocean liners and cruise ships. He tells me about all the people he met from all over the world, fellow lovers and laborers of the sea. People of all religions but you kept religion and politics separate. He has seen what happens when you don’t.
He looks like a sailor. Hearty. Warm. Bright. Strong.
Again, that quality I continue to encounter in the refugee communities I work with: resilience.
He tells me that he swam across a river to escape his country, through one new country and into a third. His wife is still in that third country, where they met, waiting for the right visa to join him permanently.
He tells me that he has a green card but no passport. I understand what this means: He is stateless. Like my father and his family when they had to leave their Egyptian passports and nationality behind.
He can’t work on a ship again until he becomes a citizen.
“Perhaps in two years,” he says.
He asks me if I think he should try to apply for refugee status in another country, in Europe, where maybe they help refugees more. (Perhaps he is wondering if there is a place where maybe he can be more sure of what the future holds for refugees?)
“My friends in Germany, they get help paying for apartments, for medical care, for education.”
I suggest that he not do anything right now because everything is changing daily. I make sure he knows not to leave the U.S. right now, though I know he can’t without a passport to elsewhere.
We look at education programs because he wants to learn about something completely different in the meantime, something practical when you live far from the sea, far from your profession.
He tells me that if he were twenty years younger when he had come to the U.S., instead of in his late thirties, he thinks he would have more opportunities, more possibilities ahead of him.
Then he says, “I have one more question. Can you help me understand why the gas company takes so much money from me every month? I am just one person.”
We spend the rest of our appointment switching gas companies to cut his bill in half. I find a coupon code that gives him an extra $100 in account credit.
This makes him very happy, because an extra $50 a month is a lot, not just on principle.