By Hazal Karaagac
The stairwells of the middle-building are dimly lit on a rainy November afternoon. The echoing footsteps of an average-height silhouette with a broom bounce between the walls. To call it a tranquil scene is misleading; a rather intense song is playing on his earphones. An every-day moment for a passerby and for him: the heads are nodded reciprocally, a smile is often shared and perhaps a good day is wished. It is the familiar face of a man wearing a signature cap.
Thomas is spotted in a private corner just like yesterday and the week before, promising to meet with me for an interview the next day each time, until his boss Adel El-Sabagh calls him to the office and pours some tea.
“But we are foreigners,” Thomas turns to El-Sabagh hesitantly, “I don’t want to say anything wrong.” El-Sabagh comforts him, “you can complain about me if you want.” Thomas does not like to complain. He knows that having a place to stay and having food to eat can be a rare privilege sometimes.
“Where I’m from, there are people who sleep outside and they do not complain. So what is your problem?” After leaving his home and family in Western Africa — he does not want to further specify where — he first moved to Paris to look for a job. Cleaning has been Thomas’s first and only job. “I was not lucky, I was cleaning in Paris as well. I started by cleaning people’s houses,” he says. “It was a position I had found myself in, so I had to fight on.” In 2013, he found his place at Carolina Macgillavrylaan. He has worked towards keeping the living space of students clean ever since, for them to have a lovely place to live in.
“You know turtles? When you put more heat on their back, they will run faster. With little heat, they move slowly. So in this life, when you have a big bag of heat, you think faster, you move faster. A challenge you face strengthens you, gives you knowledge.”
A tedious task. Thomas does his best to create a hygienic environment for over 900 students. Three buildings, five floors each. Working around students for the first time in Science Park, he has faced issues he did not experience elsewhere. “It was tough. Most of them lived with their parents before moving here, and they are not used to taking care of themselves. The work is a lot, you finish cleaning this block, and before tomorrow, it is dirty again.” The trash left outside the doors is one of the most common examples he struggles with: “You cannot just make a mess and walk away, you know? In the green building, there is no trash outside. It is very different there. I sometimes ask myself if they have different students here.”
He points out that the situation improved over the years and hopes that it continues to get better. Comparing it to the previous residents of the dorms, he indicates that while there are still people showing such behaviour, it is not like the way it was before. About the recent condom incident, he mentions that in the past, there had been more extreme cases. “I would be happy if it was just condoms. When people couldn’t go to the toilet, they would go up the stairs, ease themselves and walk away. I had to clean such things.”
At 43 years old, Thomas is the father of two daughters and a son, aged 14, 12 and 10. “Everybody wants their kids to go to college but in life we have house smart and school smart. I can teach my kids how to be house smart but in school they teach you what gives you food.” While he is pleased to mention that his boy speaks better Dutch than some white people, he is also strongly against discrimination based on skin color, being exposed to it throughout his life himself: “In this world, we have good people and we have bad people. When somebody says black people and white people are different, I say no. I say that sometimes you meet bad people and sometimes you meet good people.”
Thomas didn’t always cross ways with those good people. He struggles to understand the way he is treated at times because of his skin color. “When you go to a supermarket as a black guy to buy food and there is a white cashier, instead of giving your change nicely they just drop the money in your hand. When you get into the shop, they will be watching you as if you are a thief,” he says. Lifting his foot, he continues: “You see these boots? I bought them just because they were watching me as if I was a criminal. I was embarrassed by the way the people were watching me, I felt ashamed.”
Asking him about the cap, he answers with a smile, “I always cover my head because I think I have a big head. I have worn it every morning for the last five years.”