Kareem Abukhadra: Forgotten Neighbors

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Kareem: Over the last year, 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.

What inspired you?

Kareem: 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.’

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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. The teams has now shared stories from multiple incredible people, most of whom follow Forgotten Neighbors or keep in touch with us through social media or text.

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I’m always seeking ways to grow and Forgotten Neighbors has helped me do that. I've learnt more from doing this work than any college class or experience in my life, probably too much to cover in an article response response. I think one of the most important things I've learnt is:

The intangibles matter more than the tangibles.

What I mean by that is that many of the individuals I have interviewed have expressed that the worst thing about being homeless or low-income isn't the lack of food or lack of shelter but being made to feel like nothing by those around them in society. Sometimes telling someone to have a good day and stopping to chat with them can matter a lot more than giving them some money and walking away.

How does your heritage affect your work?

Kareem: I grew up on [an] island in the Middle East with virtually no homeless people. Coming to a country and city, prized for its wealth, and seeing that there were individuals suffering from homelessness on every street corner was a huge surprise.

I’ve also always also been a huge extrovert and enjoyed meeting people, so I thought I’d take my shock and my natural skills in socializing and put it towards bringing to light voices that don’t get heard often enough.

Zehra Naqvi