“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

The Girl Who Lost Her Country

20 September 2018 | Amal de Chickera, Co-Director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion
The girl who lost her country

Hello there!

I’m glad you stopped by.

I’d like to introduce you to someone very special.

Meet Neha. She is just 12 years old. (It’s funny how we say that isn’t it? We would never say that of an adult. But with children, we tend to assume that being extraordinary or courageous or brilliant is even more special than it is in an adult.)

But she is just 12. And she has grown up in a very loving family in Nepal. However, despite her mother’s best efforts, Neha and her sister Nikita have been treated very badly by society. They haven’t been allowed to sit key exams in school or travel abroad. And they’ve had to see their mum constantly fight for them to be treated equally. They’ve even had to see their mum being ridiculed by little men seated behind big desks and propped up by even bigger egos.

It’s not easy for a 12-year-old to see the person they love most be treated so badly. But with humour and an extraordinary positivity, they have carried on.

But, Neha is no ordinary girl. ‘Just carrying on’ is not an adequate option for her. She knew in her gut that something was horribly wrong and she decided to find out more, so she could fight the system. The problem appeared to be that she had no nationality. She was Nepali in her heart and in her gut, but for some weird reason, the little men did not think so, and what they thought, (strangely) mattered most.

With a little help from a group of wonderful friends – both kids and adults – from around the world, who Neha was able to meet and speak with, she started piecing together the pieces of her own nationality. Through this, she discovered a much bigger problem – statelessness. Finding out that there were many stateless people in the world, was a revelation to Neha. Finding out that they were all stateless due to extremely silly and unfair reasons, was infuriating. As one of her friends put it: “everyone has to have a nationality. Everyone has a homeland…” but… “grownups can be weird!”

Neha with her sister and mother
Neha with her mum and sister

Neha’s adventures took her to many countries – Cote d’Ivoire where she met the lovely Grace and other stateless foundlings in an orphanage; Macedonia, where she met Kezia, a kind Roma lady who had trouble registering her children; the Dominican Republic, where Rosa’s warm smile and comforting hug were not enough in the face of the racism and discrimination that stripped her and her children of their citizenship; Bangladesh, where she learnt how countries can be so cruel to even kill and chase out stateless groups that are not wanted; Malaysia, where Aasif and his cheeky friends enjoyed a simple life on the water despite the looming threat of insecurity; and Kenya, where Thomas and others in the Makonde community showed her that she can take her destiny in her own hands and fight for what is hers by right.

Through all of these encounters (and more), Neha learnt how unfair the world can be. How those who should have a nationality are denied it, those who would have a nationality cannot prove it, and those who do have a nationality can lose it.

Neha and her friends also learnt more about the struggles faced by stateless children around the world. And importantly, what we can do to challenge statelessness and demand that every child have a nationality!

We at the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion have been lucky to encounter Neha and her family and journey with them. They are among the most inspirational people you could hope to meet. And so, we decided to make a book, which tells the story of statelessness through Neha’s eyes. It is based on real people and their stories and draws on what over 200 children from around the world had to say about nationality and statelessness. This book, ‘The Girl Who Lost Her Country’ has now been published in English and Dutch, with the French and Spanish versions forthcoming. We are also working on a website, which will complement the book and include lots of additional materials, activities and teaching resources.

The book and website have been designed to help children explore not just how nationality works and what role it plays in our day-to-day lives, but also build their understanding of the rights they hold as children. They make a wonderful teaching, learning and awareness raising resource. But don’t take our word for it. Here is what the experts say – children’s writers, academics and UN specialists!

Neha’s story is rich, wrenching, and illuminating. This is a necessary book.

 William Alexander - winner of the American National Book Award

 

This marvellous book addresses one of today’s most egregious and elusive human rights challenges with admirable clarity and energy.  It provides a powerful tool for educators, for youth advocates and for young people eager to understand how a basic lynchpin of human belonging can be denied to millions of people today.

 Jacqueline Bhabha - Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights, Harvard University

 

This book is an entertaining – and educational – introduction to statelessness for children. Neha’s journey clearly highlights the struggles Stateless children and their families can face. It helps children learn about their rights, and how they can help.

 Kerry L. Neal - Child Protection Specialist, UNICEF

 

Most importantly, here is how Neha and her sister Nikita responded when they read the book!

We are immensely happy and so grateful to you all for this amazing book. We have lived as stateless for so many years, and more than we sisters, our mother has fought a lot. Through this book we feel like her call for fighting this injustice will be reached worldwide and more understanding hearts will join in. We would like to thank the writer in particular for allowing us (stateless children around the world) to an avenue to dare to dream, of breaking the chain and fly beyond borders. We believe this will certainly bring hope and encouragement to all the stateless children to achieve their dreams and go far and beyond.

 Neha and Nikita Gurung - Sisters from Himalayan country, Nepal

 

While the book has been written for children, we feel it will also be useful to adults. And so now, we hope to work with partners from around the world, to ensure the book gets into the hands of students, teachers, parents, activists, journalists, public servants, politicians, stateless persons and the general public around the world.

If you are interested in learning more about our plans or in collaborating with the Institute to distribute these resources in your country, please do get in touch with me – amal.dechickera@institutesi.org. And do look out for our website, which will be launched later this year!

I leave the last word to Neha and her sister Nikita. I hope you enjoyed meeting them, and that you will encounter them and their friends in the not too distant future!

Inclusive World - That’s all we want and wish for.  I hope this is where we all are walking towards…and I directly appeal all the readers, let’s walk this path of equality together, hand in hand. After all ‘We All Belong to This Home called Earth’

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