Meet Kareem Abukhadra - Founder of Forgotten Neighbors, he is on a mission to acknowledge and share the stories of homeless people he meets at soup kitchens, shelters, and on the streets of New York.
Tell us about the project you're working on.
Over the last six months, I’ve walked around the streets of New York, slept at homeless shelters, and served at soup kitchens. In the process, I’ve interacted with hundreds of homeless people, from addicts, to artists, to people who’ve lost their jobs working at Morgan Stanley and ended up homeless. I started Forgotten Neighbors to share the stories the individuals in this community were telling me.
How did you come up with the idea?
In January, I was outside my dorm late at night talking to a homeless man in 40-degree weather. A few minutes into the conversation he asked me for money. I had nothing on me so I apologized and spoke with him for a few more minutes before turning to leave. That’s when he called my name and said thank you.
I was confused so I turned around to ask why he was thanking me and he simply responded: ‘Thanks for acknowledging me. People walk by me and ignore me every day.’
That struck a weird chord in me and pushed me to want to do more. I started volunteering and realized how rich many homeless people were, perhaps not in terms of material wealth, but definitely in terms of stories and experiences. While the average conversation at my college revolved around submitting homework by an arbitrary deadline or an artificial conversation about a frat party, a few minutes into speaking with a homeless person would force me to consider the role uncontrollable forces play in our lives or how a few bad decisions could take someone from a six-figure income to a box on the streets.
I then thought: Since I’m having these conversations, I might as well start sharing them with the world. I started with friends at the shelter and soup kitchen I volunteered at and then expanded outwards to cold-approaching people on the streets. I’ve now shared stories from multiple incredible people, most of whom follow Forgotten Neighbors or keep in touch with me through social media or text.
What’s the most important things you’ve learnt?
Perspective is prison. We live in these little boxes that shape our understanding of the world and make it impossible for us to draw conclusions that exist outside our realm of understanding. These boxes become our reality and it becomes very difficult to avoid conflating truth with the ideas we have in our heads. We find solace in structure and stability, use patterns we’ve identified to navigate the uncertainty of the world, and cling to certain beliefs of the way things are, lest our understanding of the world descend into chaos. Our desire for structure and stability is not inherently harmful, but it can lead us to remain in jobs we hate for fear of the unknown or to make assumptions and generalizations across groups of diverse, complex, and very different people, including the homeless. This tendency only serves to strengthen the walls of the boxes which confine our perspective, which can only be breached by understanding the why.
When our friends or families act in ways we disregard, the 'why' is often un-coverable. We can simply ask. But when a homeless person acts in a manner we disapprove of, the societal tendency is to dismiss and ignore, not to ask, which makes getting across the 'why' a little difficult.
That’s exactly what my project intends to do. I look for the stories behind the faces on the streets, whether it’s through talking to the alcoholic who drinks to numb the pain of sleeping in freezing weather, or the healthy-looking homeless person who can’t hold up a job due to a mental disorder.
It’s these stories that allow us to connect and understand one another. And though they might give off the image that the homeless live a completely different life, one we can never seek to understand, a little introspection might reveal otherwise.
Think back to the time you were ostracized from a group, the way you felt when you walked into a room with all eyes on you, a hint of disgust in the air.
Think back to the time you endlessly sought the attention of another human being, only to be turned away and ignored.
Think back to the time your friend, teacher, or maybe even a parent talked down on you, doubting your ability to achieve something.
Now imagine it’s not a group of people or a single human being treating you in this way.
Imagine it’s all of society.
Take any struggles you have had with worthlessness, shame, inadequacy, or loneliness, emotions which have prevented you from achieving the goals you’ve set out to achieve, whether it’s building a new skill or pursuing a person of interest. Now imagine how it feels to experience them a hundredfold every second of every day.
You can beg and the money you panhandle might (barely) sustain you physically, but you’ll never be met with the same compassion or respect a person with a home is.
People will criticize you for engaging in self-destructive behavior when they keep up unhealthy habits that shred away layers of their life, for a lack of discipline when they can barely maintain a consistent gym schedule, and for abusing drugs and alcohol when they do so too to escape the stress of college or work.
You will constantly feel the judgment of society pressing down on you and through the rich, the housed, and the privileged of society fail to achieve many of their goals, they will struggle to see why having the structural stability of housing we crave ripped away can make doing so exponentially harder.
No matter where you go or who you interact with, you will live, feel, and embody, an unshakeable feeling of failure.
Now imagine trying to get your life in order.
I don’t write this in an attempt to advocate for homeless people to remain homeless or to morally justify the abuse of alcohol. I constantly push all my friends, both with and without homes, to discontinue unhealthy habits and do everything they can to take steps in the right direction. Nor was this written in an attempt to capture the lives and experiences of all homeless people. There are plenty of sane, working, healthy homeless adults and families that don’t abuse drugs or alcohol. They may experience everything I’ve described, some of it, or none at all.
This has just been an expression of my experiences sitting down for dinner with, talking with, and befriending the homeless. This has been an expression of my experience hearing from our Forgotten Neighbors.
Forgotten Neighbors Instagram Page: https://www.instagram.com/forgottenneighbors/ Forgotten Neighbors Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/Forgotten-Neighbors-1594187204032221/