Building a ‘Home Away From Home’ at JFK

Sophia Harris serves on a busy crew at a JFK cargo building with a combination of humor, love of food, and commitment to making sure the job is done right.

| 16 Oct 2023 | 11:45

Sophia Harris, a cargo building clerk at JFK International Airport, lights up with a knowing smile when asked about the best part of her job: sharing a laugh with her coworkers, of course.

“We have a lot in common in terms of our Caribbean roots and our curiosity. It’s like a family. It’s like a home away from home,” she said. More specifically, a love of communal food dominates the conversation. “In the morning, it will always be: ‘What are we having for breakfast, where are we going to have breakfast,’” Harris quipped. Fried dumplings and porridge are often the meal of choice – and lunchtime discourse is not far behind.

It’s even gotten to the point where fellow workers with a less hearty passion for a good meal playfully tease Harris’s crew. “You always talk about food!” is a common observation.

Harris immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in 2017, which was her first time traveling on a plane. She was stunned by the impressive scale of JFK airport, and jumped on an offer to work there as soon as it arose. She generally has “no down time” in her life, since she’s often lending a helping hand at her local ministry after-hours.

“I’m a grateful person,” she said.

Of course, there are some days that are more trying or bizarre than others. A mix-up of human remains at her cargo terminal was a particularly unpleasant experience, and she also finds herself having to deal with the termination of fellow workers.

However, Harris’ equanimous attitude helps ease the pressure on stressed-out colleagues – and makes everything run a little bit smoother. She tells people that mistakes are “a part of the process,” and that if “you relax and just stay focused...there’s things that can be corrected. So don’t be so hard on yourself.”

Working odd hours during extraordinary circumstances is another inevitable stressor of working in airport cargo. By way of example, Harris cited a day of “heavy snow” that messed up the freight schedule and left roads slick and impassable. She organized her team’s response as an act of solidarity and dedication: “We stayed there the entire night, just to make sure that someone was there in the morning in case truckers were coming in, to hold it down.” Crucially, it helped Harris cement her bond with her supervisor. “Everything was so new coming here and being here, this [job] was my first home in America. She was that person that directed the path as to what things to do,” she explained.

Now, Harris has become the poised mentor herself, steering the way for uncertain new arrivals.