To say Mohammed was nervous on our second morning in Dakar would be an understatement, but I struggled to come up with a better word: “antsy,” maybe, “worked up,” or, as the kids are saying, “shook.”

I tried to imagine what it would feel like to wake up knowing I’d be meeting my grandmother for the first time, knowing that my extended family would be preparing a big meal for me while still observing their daily Ramadan fast.

Knowing I was about to go home.

Mohammed paced around the room, no appetite for breakfast, not wanting to talk about what was bothering him. In an obtuse moment, I forgot what a big day we were embarking on and asked in exasperation why he was taking so long to get ready. Sharing a tense moment on the balcony of our hotel room, he reluctantly opened up.

“I don’t know what to expect,” he finally said. I asked if he was worried or excited or fill-in-the-blank-emotion and he kept coming back with the same words: I don’t know.

It was true, he really didn’t know what to expect. Mohammed had been in foster care since his mother had become unable to take care of him and his sister. His relationship with his father had always been tenuous at best, as he bounced between unsatisfactory foster homes for the majority of his childhood and teenage years. What had been conspicuously absent from this tumultuous upbringing was a sense of family.

This wasn’t news to me, in fact I’d known for years how fervently Mohammed longed for a place that felt like home. I’d seen it years ago when I became his youth mentor. It stuck with me after we’d lost touch when he was moved to a new foster home. It came flooding back when we miraculously ran into each other on a southbound subway train and started exploring the possibility of me becoming his legal guardian. Even after he moved in and I did my best to make him feel at home, I still knew something was missing.

To tell the truth, I felt inadequate when it came to matters of home and family. I certainly wasn’t a traditional candidate for guardianship and the agency made it pretty clear there were few, if any, foster parents like me. I was a young, single man who had barely figured out how to take care of himself and was now responsible for another life.  

Still, Mohammed and I both knew something needed to change if he was going to have a fighting chance to achieve the lofty goals he had for himself. And, as confused as I felt most of the time, I could at least provide a roof over his head, food in the fridge, and a supportive ear when times got hard.

But I wasn’t quite a family.

Standing on that balcony with Mohammed, I realized what a huge step he was about to take. As we eventually got our shoes on, hailed a cab, and ventured across Dakar toward his family’s home, his nervousness (or whatever word could be used to describe how he was feeling) proved contagious. The cab broke down, we hailed another, and finally pulled up at the right address.

I hung back, letting Mohammed walk in first. His friendly uncle, one of the few family members who spoke English, ushered him toward the regal-looking woman sitting sentinal by the front door. I recalled enough of my high school French class to translate his weighty next words.

“This is your grandson Mohammed.”

A smile spread across the woman’s wrinkled, glowing skin as she wrapped Mohammed into an embrace. Again, I tried to imagine how he must be feeling, but couldn’t. I simply looked on as grandmother and grandchild gazed on each other for the first time.

The next few hours were crammed with similarly joyful meetings as word had spread to the extended family of Mohammed’s homecoming. The living room quickly filled with vibrant characters, each one chattering excitedly in French and Wolof, elated at the arrival of this long-lost family member. Mohammed sat with uncles, aunts, and cousins of all types, swapping photos, holding babies, smiling from ear to ear.

I spent most of our visit quietly observing. I didn’t speak the language and hadn’t met any of these friendly folks before. Still, the scene was familiar: the talkative adults, the tears and laughter, the noisy kids running in all directions as the proud matriarch looked on. This was every Thanksgiving, every Christmas, every Sunday dinner I’d had the blessing and privilege to live through growing up. This was family.

It was heartbreaking to think that Mohammed, the kid I’d come to love as I watched him grow through his adolescence, had gone 20 long years without a big, overbearing overwhelming, overdue family dinner like this. My melancholy, thankfully, wasn’t contagious as we rode the cab back the the bustling city center. Mohammed was still all smiles as he recounted the people he’d met and the reception he’d received.

“They were all so happy to see me and I don’t even know why!”

“That’s what family is, I guess,” I answered, struggling for words. “The people who are happy to see you for no other reason than the simple fact that you’re alive, that you are who you are. And that you’re theirs.”

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. To read the next installment of Matthew and Mohammed’s journey, go to part four.