Our trip back to Dakar was uneventful, but when we arrived in the city, it was surprising how familiar it felt.

We’d saved a few days in the capital city for the end of the trip, knowing we’d want to  see the sights we missed the first time around. Tempted as we were to revisit the same spots we’d enjoyed the week before, we knew there was so much more to see.

At the top of that list was the Ile de N’Gor, a small island off the coast that is accessible by boat from the westernmost point of the African continent and famous for its surfing. True to form, as soon as we stepped out of the taxi, we were met by a young man who offered us a round-trip boat ride and tour of the island for what seemed like a fair price to a couple of foreigners. The weather was perfect, the view was gorgeous, and the day was the type travelers dream of.

We took a stroll along the perimeter of the small island, led by our friendly guide. We walked past the seasonal surf camp (the waves were too rough during this point in the year), a home for gifted children (an idyllic setting, to be sure), and the eccentrically decorated homes of Dakar’s rich and famous (including Akon, whose island dwelling was as enviable and memorable as you’d expect).

Around the western edge of the island, we walked along an outcropping of rock, enjoying the views from the seaside cliffs. The Atlantic seemed to stretch on forever, a gleaming expanse of blue, deep churning waters that reached all the way back to New York.  

Overlooking this vast landscape was an archway, awash with a colorful postmodern spattering of paint. The concrete structure had an opening at its center, barely bigger than a doorway. As I watched the waves crashing on the other side, the memory of a similar sight rushed back to me.

Our tour guide followed my gaze and, as if he could read my mind, explained: “The Door of Humanity. You have seen the Door of No Return on Ile de Goree? This is the opposite. This door welcomes our brothers and sisters back home.”

Nearby, Mohammed had taken a seat on a bench and was taking in the view: the lighthouse marking the edge of the African continent, the ocean he had never seen from this angle, the skyline of Dakar in the distance. He had been welcomed back, had marched triumphantly through this and countless other doors to reclaim his place, his heritage, and his story.

This young man with his camera around his neck, baseball cap, and far-off gaze fixed on the horizon … he was the hero of this story. I looked at him in awe, thinking of the obstacles he overcame to end up on that island, of the odds that had been stacked against him, and of the indomitable spirit that kept him going through it all.

It had been a year since I’d told Mohammed I was going to be his unconventional, unprepared, undercooked-in-every-way foster dad and he’d come along for the ride as I tried to make him feel at home. As time passed, though, he taught me that “home” meant much more than simply sharing a roof or a mailbox.  

I’d come to realize that “home” is shorthand for the feeling you get when voids are filled that you didn’t know existed, when you’ve claimed every part of yourself, and when you feel secure and loved regardless of what side of the ocean you’re on.

We spent the rest of the day on the island, enjoying the beach, sun, and music. Then we ventured back to our hotel, packed our bags, said goodbye to Mohammed’s family, and braved security lines at the airport. Eventually, we’d land at JFK and take the train back to our Harlem apartment, life seemingly going back to normal. But, as we paused on that bench by the “Door of Humanity,” I realized that things would never be the same.

I’d already taken Mohammed into my home.  But as soon as I stepped foot on Senegalese soil, he’d welcomed me into his.  

And in that moment on the beach of N’Gor, both of us were whole.

Matthew and his foster-son, Mohammed, traveled to Senegal for the first round of Passion Passport’s, “The Passport Project.” To learn more, click here.

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