Each year as part of their training in New York, the new class of Acumen Fund fellows is sent out into the city armed only with a $6 metro card, a $5 bill, and their IDs. Their mission is to experience the challenges of obtaining basic services with these meager, minimal resources; in the course of the day, they stand in soup kitchens, visit shelters, and attempt access to medical care. Over the next week, we will be sharing their experiences on our blog. The first comes from Yehia Houry.
After training, Yehia will spend the year working with 1298, the first reliable emergency medical response service in Mumbai and other major cities in India. He has experience as a financial analyst, focused on access to financing for the poor. Yehia holds a Masters in International Affairs from Columbia University.
Waiting in line outside a soup kitchen in some forgotten corner of New York, I look around the courtyard. I am new to this scene and to be honest, I am not really sure how I ended up here.
The overwhelmingly male crowd is waiting for the doors to open, killing time chatting with their neighbors in line. Some are restless; others are drunk, while some look relaxed, or high. They all look tired.
I notice a curious pattern of activity developing. Every couple of minutes someone walks over to a guy sitting on a ledge, smoking a cigarette. They talk to him for a moment and then receive what looks like a small green ball wrapped in plastic film. I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that drug trafficking would be a pretty common thing here.
Now it is time to eat. Everyone stands up, silently filing through the doors, down the stairs to the basement. There is neither pushing nor fighting; everyone patiently waits for their turn.
“What’s for lunch?” I hear someone shout.
As I sit down, I notice that the meal the man sitting on my right is eating differs from my own. I was pretty hungry, so I just took everything that was being offered. “Why are our dishes different?” I ask.
“I just don’t feel like eating meat today, this is the vegetarian option” he responds, surprising me.
Shortly thereafter, I overhear a conversation between the two guys sitting across from me. “Are you going for seconds? I hear they have enough for us to go back and get some more.”
“No second round for me today, last time I came here I was so full I had to throw out half of it.” This exchange too surprises me.
As I continue eating my plentiful meal, I turn to the man sitting next to me, trying to strike up a conversation, and ask, “Hey, do you know where I can spend the night tonight?”
He stares back at me with a look of disgust and says, not without obvious pride, “I don’t go to shelters, I have my own place.” Again, this surprises me.
Suddenly, the neighbor to my right turns to me and says “Hey amigo, do you want some of this?” I look over to see that he is offering me a bit of the green substance being traded in the courtyard. As I open my mouth to politely refuse, I look down, startled, realizing that what I was staring at – the green ball that earlier I imagined was some kind of drug - is simply hot chili pepper.
Out of the blue, something dawns on me: the reason that I am having a meal punctuated with so many surprises, really many of them minor epiphanies, was because my prejudices were so strong going into the experience
I found myself surprised by peoples’ reactions to my prodding questions, by the thoughtful discussions they carried on with one another – even by their personal bearing – because I had not expected to find dignity in a site as austere as some forgotten soup kitchen, in a far corner of an imposing and massive city.
But of course what I learned at the kitchen is just how tenacious, pervasive, and unexpected dignity can be.
That is, there is dignity that inheres, I learned, in being selective about your meal, wherever you eat it and even if it is given to you for free. There is dignity in refusing to waste food, even if you are often hungry. There is an essential dignity of living in your own home, even if supplying your own lunch is still not possible. And, finally, there is dignity in bringing and sharing your favorite flavorings so that you and your friends can enjoy the meal as you would at your own home.
I just never expected to find such dignity in such a place. How wrong I was.