“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

One man’s struggle for an identity

19 October 2017 | Gerard van Leeuwen, Author

We all know that some ten million people around the world are stateless. Often they are reduced to statistics, case files and quotes. Art can be a way to give these people faces. Like Greg Constantine and Anoek Steketee do through photographs, writing a literary non-fiction novel was my attempt to highlight the humanity of stateless people. The novel is a description of a single case, although calling it a case is already a mistake. The story I wrote is the story of a man, a human being, just like you and I.

I met Kamal Kojadin, the main character of my book, a few years ago. I was on a road trip with a friend and headed to South-Eastern Europe due to our shared interest in the history of the region. We agreed to visit several humanitarian projects in Sarajevo and Trebinje that we were indirectly involved with. I encountered Kamal  by chance. It all started from there. My contact Ingrid, a German social worker, told me about him. She had found him living as a beggar in one of the abandoned, dilapidated buildings in the city. She asked me to do her a favour and meet up with him. He was lonely, enjoyed talking to others and would appreciate a conversation. We sat down in the centre of the city for a coffee, but our conversation took us through lunch and then even dinner. With increasing astonishment, I listened to the story about what can happen to a man for the simple reason that he has no birth certificate. That astonishment inspired me to write down his story. It was a conversation I could not let go. As he told me about his life he proudly showed me his newly acquired ID card. I took out my camera and asked him if I could take a few pictures. Some weeks later, back home, I took another look at those pictures of Kamal on the plaza. His ID card caught my eye and I zoomed in. The number on the card was 000001. In that moment, I knew I wanted to know all about this man and I called him to ask if it was okay if I returned to write a book about his life.

At some point, while interviewing Kamal, I started to realise that I was not just writing about Kamal as an individual. He is only one of many people who find themselves in the same situation for a myriad of different reasons. I realised I could help raise awareness about the fate of stateless people all around the world by writing a story that would appeal to a larger audience.

When Kamal was still a baby, his parents fled Croatia in May 1945 without obtaining a birth certificate. The family managed to build a new life, but time and again they were forced to flee. After the death of his parents, Kamal returned to Yugoslavia, and it was only then that he really started to feel the effects of living without an identity document or any official papers, as he found he was unable to open a bank account, buy a house, or marry. When the love of his life died, their children were taken away from him. Kamal felt like a prisoner in his home country, and ended up begging on the streets of Sarajevo.

Yet the book is not just a sad story about what it means to be stateless. Kamal has lead an exceptional life in many different places and he has actually witnessed several important historical events. “A stateless Forrest Gump”, is how the reviewer of Amnesty International described Kamal. In its own way, it is also a beautiful story about both mental and physical borders, about love, loneliness and being a survivor.

As I was writing the book, I came to realise that statelessness was an obstacle Kamal had to face time and again in his search for happiness and a normal life. No country, organisation or person felt in any way responsible for his situation. People who are stateless are left completely alone and cut off from the world. Statelessness is not just bad luck, neither it’s just being born in the wrong place at the wrong time. It has a lot to do with democracy, respect for human rights and political systems. Now that I know more about it, I can clearly see that people’s beliefs and convictions are a major factor and that some people are deliberately excluded by being left stateless at the fringes of society.

My book “Stateless, One Man’s Struggle for an Identity” is available for purchase on Amazon.

‘A gripping piece of non-fiction (...) it is lovely to see Kamal’s, a truly stateless person, journey through life. The author takes the reader through countless of locations in different countries and makes it feel like we are right there with Kamal through his ups and downs in life’

-- AMAZON review

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