Suleyman comes from Chad. He was a little over 17 when he arrived in Italy in the nineties, before I was even born.
I meet him for the first time in front of his house. Which is practically around the corner from my house. How strange that I had never met him before, yet I often passed his house. Everyone walks by the abandoned car park at Piazza Cornelia. Un underground parking area that became famous because when they built it they got the measurements wrong, which is the reason that if you pass by there today you won’t find cars, but you’ll find him, Suleyman.
Francesco met Suleyman at the Termini station. It was an ordinary day, the “Chadian” (that’s what people call him around here) was walking back and forth through the station trying to pick up some change to buy food. The reason why Fran stopped when he crossed paths with Suleyman only became clear to me when I crossed his path too.
-“Pleased to meet you Suleyman, I’m Marica, a friend of Francesco’s. He’ll be here any minute now.”
The Chadian looks at me with surprise, but the name Francesco must have calmed him down. We decide to go eat a slice of pizza together. While he chooses his pizza, I realize that I’ve never met anyone who comes from Chad. In fact, I’m not even too sure where Chad is exactly.
“No one ever knows Chad. Everyone knows Nigeria, Sudan, Libya, but Chad never. It’s a small country with no sea. “Here in Italy,” Suleyman tells me while he quickly eats his piece of pizza margherita, “there’s no Chadian embassy. There was a consul once, a good man, but he died.”
We spend a half hour in that pizzeria, a half hour in which I discover an existence that is tragic yet inexplicably lacking in rage or despair. “During my first years in Italy I found a job, under the table, but a job nonetheless. After that things got difficult for Italians, so just imagine for us.” I ask him what he remembers about Chad, he says he remembers everything, from the bright green grass to the trees as tall as mountains. “There I learned how to do what I would have liked to do for my whole life: play soccer. Now you see me like this, old and broken-down, but I was strong, boy was I strong.” I see a cloud of nostalgia pass delicately above his eyes, and I think about the man who once told me not to underestimate the power of a ball “between the uncontaminated feet of a child.”
I can’t help noticing his large hands, which must have once been warm, and now are swollen and bruised by the cold. Ashamed of the number of down comforters that cover me in these freezing nights, I ask him quite simply how he manages to endure being on the street at night. “On the street? But I sleep on three cartons! And I even have more than one blanket! There are others who suffer, there in the station. Dozens, there are dozens of people who sleep on the marble of Termini. And that marble is cold, God knows how cold it is. I’m always thankful when I wake up, I always say thanks when I see the sun the next day.”
I look straight into the Chadian’s eyes. He has been living this way for about forty years. “I don’t exist, I don’t exist for Chad because I no longer have a passport. I don’t exist for Italy because I don’t have anything that resembles an I.D.
But they told me that the Chadian ambassador to France will come here if I contact him, they say he’s a good man. Maybe he can help me, I just need to figure out how.”
While my useless rage is defeated by his disarming hope, I notice Fran outside the pizzeria.
Suleyman smiles, he didn’t think that Fran would find the time to come.
video: Fran Atopos
Sartre said that existing only meant being there; “He who exists lets himself be met.”
And the Chadian had let himself be met.
story: Marica Fantauzzi