“Everyone has the right to a nationality”

A State of Less

26 September 2019 | Lynn Khatib, Social activist

When you are stateless, you live your whole life in limbo, from the day you were born until the day you die.

“No kid is ever supposed to worry about this stuff”

I learnt what it means to be stateless and to have a travel document but not a passport at a very young age. My mum made sure that we were aware of what statelessness is and what it means to be born as a refugee. In her own kind way, she made us realise that “on paper you don’t exist, so get yourself together and work on getting a degree, because no one on this earth will help you. You will need to create your existence from scratch.”

No kid is ever supposed to worry about this stuff or feel such pressure. To be forced to achieve so much more than other people just to be equal to them, all because you weren’t born with the same papers they have; to have to run while everyone else is walking.

As kids, we used to spend our summer vacation in Lebanon at my grandparents’ place. The road trip between Syria and Lebanon was a nightmare. Instead of listening to the radio and singing along or pretending that we were being chased by clouds that look like dinosaurs, we used to sit there saying prayers that my mom taught us, hoping that the journey would be smooth and they wouldn’t give us a hard time at the border. No kid should be nervously praying on a family road trip instead of singing carefree before falling asleep peacefully.  

“A dream that turned into a nightmare”

You see, my problem with the limbo of statelessness didn’t begin when I applied for asylum in Sweden. It started 44 years before I was born when my grandparents left Palestine to seek asylum in Syria, where I was born as a third generation, stateless Palestinian refugee. Sweden was a promise of shelter, a dream. But one that quickly turned into a nightmare. I have spent five years of my life here; five years that shaped the person I am now. The girl with unlimited ambition and dreams, turned into a grown woman who realized that you don’t need to be in a cell with locked doors to call yourself a prisoner; that you don’t need shackles around your wrists to feel that your arms are tied.

Sweden decided to deport me to Lebanon where my mum’s from, even though I don’t have the right to stay there permanently – yes, I am 27 but they decided that I belong to my mum! Lebanon did not want me back. After 4 years of hopeless attempts to be cooperative with the migration agency, they couldn’t deport us after Lebanon’s refusal. So, I took my chances and booked a ticket to Lebanon in an attempt to deport myself. As expected, they wouldn’t even let me on the plane.

Finally, on 20 July 2018 the migration agency decided to give us a one-year temporary residence permit. I didn’t celebrate, because all I was thinking about was what would happen on 20 July 2019 - and here we are. After contacting the migration agency several times to ask what would happen, I finally got an answer a week before our permit expired. They told me that I had seven days to prove that Lebanon still doesn’t want me back, and that the only reason I got the permit to stay was so that I could apply for a visa for Lebanon. And now I am going around in circles again!

“Why let me taste how freedom feels, if the intention was to make me leave?”

If the intention to give me a residence permit was only to make it easier for me to be deported, why did they let me integrate into society? Why did they allow me to go to school, have an internship at one of the country’s biggest banks and get a job? Why did they let me taste how freedom feels and what it means to be a “normal” human with basic rights, if the only intention was to make me leave again? It felt like being kept in a cage for a year would have been less cruel than giving us all of these things and then taking them away.

“Are we superhumans?”

Do you know what it means to be living in Sweden without a personnummer (social security number)? It is having an anxiety attack while waiting for your bus after a 22-hour shift without sleep, feeling like your heart will jump out of your chest and you are collapsing, but all you can think about is “how can I call for help and explain that I don’t have papers? That I am not illegal, but I don’t have an ID card? Maybe if I speak Swedish, they will take me seriously and won’t ask for papers!” Having no social security number means you will swallow that anxiety attack down, do some breathing exercises you saw on the internet and even if you collapse, something inside you will wake you up and get you on your feet again.

I am not sure if this thing inside is guilt. Guilt making us feel as though people like us cannot collapse, cannot stop running otherwise we will have to start from the beginning and be invisible again. Or is it hope, ambition, even superpowers? Is it a mechanism that we develop to cling on to life, like how the loss of vision strengthens sense of hearing? Are we superhumans? Is that how we survive the void of less? Because I do not see “normal humans” tolerating this.

The word stateless is associated with a lot of words ending in ‘less’. When you are stateless you feel worthless, futureless, faceless, helpless, hopeless, rootless, shoreless. You are on a rubber boat surrounded by water on a journey to nowhere. The only thing you have is your daydream of a shore that one day you might call home, but then you realize that it was all a mirage. Your rubber boat is getting smaller and smaller in an endless ocean.

“I am not the only one”

Fifteen million people around the world share my ‘state of less’. Fifteen million different stories, agonies and dreams, running around in a dimension where everything feels surreal. When I tell people about my story, they link it to movies - they call it catch-22. Well it is not a movie! It is the reality of millions of people who are often voiceless. I am lucky, somehow my voice is getting louder and louder, and I will keep going.

When I was a child, I dreamt that one day I would tell people about the place I come from without feeling that I am less of a human than they are. No child should be born stateless, nor should they die stateless.

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