I take a deep breath and walk into the noisy classroom. My friend, another lawyer from the Halina Niec Legal Aid Centre (HNLAC) follows suit, her step a bit shaky. We are not used to this. We would be more comfortable talking to foreigners in migration detention or rendering legal aid to asylum seekers, even a courtroom seems like a safer and more relaxed place right now. But a classroom full of 16 and 17 year-olds is a great unknown. Anything can happen. And probably will.
In order to change reality and fight for human rights, however, you have to be ready for new challenges even ones as scary as confronting a group of teenagers to teach them about statelessness. The HNLAC has been involved in legal assistance to refugees, undocumented persons and the stateless for many years now, helping thousands of individuals, but struggling with the fact that the general social awareness of their situation remains very low. Building a better place and more favourable legal standards for those without nationality cannot be achieved by several NGOs alone. This change needs to gain meaningful support from the society, the same society which by and large cannot properly define what the term “statelessness” signifies.
That is the main reason why, while working with others as part of the European Network on Statelessness (ENS) campaign “None of Europe’s Children Should be Stateless”, including to carry out research studies and planning the most effective advocacy strategies, we also decided to take one step back and talk to the society itself as part of a schools outreach project piloted by ENS.
I breath out and look at the face of “society” which for my today’s task consists of over 20 students of the NAZWA SZKOLY in Cracow. Our plan is meeting with three such groups, three weeks in a row, talking about the plight of the stateless and the possible ways to help them. Some eyes looks at us curiously, some squint in disbelief trying to read the label “lawyer” in Russian and in English printed at the back of our work t-shirts. They thought all lawyers wore expensive suits and charged their clients ridiculous sums. This discovery alone seems to get their attention.
We introduce ourselves and the goal of our project and break the ice by asking our audience about their travels abroad. Faces lit up and hands are raised. Suddenly everyone wants to share their experience and ideas. Some talk of spending their last vacation in Egypt or Turkey, others boast of having travelled to Rome, Paris, the Swiss Alps or even the US. Compared to the stateless we help, they are so very lucky. Most of them already have their passports issued and close to half have travelled abroad on at least several occasions so it is difficult for them to grasp that some people can never do that.
They talk about their rights and it is obvious that they take their nationality for granted, as it should be, as it is a fundamental human right. When they hear about the stateless in the world and statelessness in Poland they are surprised. They would never think that nationality is something you can lose this way or another, or that you could be born without it.
The classes conducted according to a ENS toolkit and methodology which included a broad array of teaching tools and methods; including handouts , case studies, assignments and a Fact Sheet 1 - How do Children become Stateless? and a Fact Sheet 2 - Sattelessness and Rights. Students working in groups and individually, discussed the themes of nationality and the rights it entails, statelessness and child statelessness. The last class concentrated on the possible ways of addressing the problem of statelessness which was perhaps the one with the most enthusiastic response. The feeling that your voice, even that of a teenager, can change the life of others, was empowering.
One of the biggest challenges of the class was the fact that the stateless are truly invisible in Poland. There is no in situ population here, no applicable legal definition and Poland has not signed any of the statelessness conventions. The stateless do exist here but are widely ignored, pushed to the margins of the society. None of the students in our class could recall a stateless person they met or even one that they heard of. Until our project they never suspected that such people could be found in their country and never spared them a thought.
This project is coming to an end. It was challenging for the whole team but it also gave as a boost of confidence and hope. The school management is already proposing further cooperation and involving us in more human tights- related classes. Though it may seem that the stateless themselves do not instantly benefit from this undertaking, it is the social change of perspective that we are after, and some positive signs of light are already appearing. The majority of the students involved thought that our classes were useful and eye-opening. They admitted that they learned about things (and people) they would otherwise blissfully ignore. One evaluation form moved us especially strongly and it may be the perfect summary of the goal ahead:
“I want to tell the stateless people, that they aren't alone and they will have a better life. We are with them and we want to help.”
This piece is one of a series of ENS blogs themed around its campaign “None of Europe’s Children Should be Stateless” following the ENS’s conference in Budapest on 2-3 June 2015. Visit the ENS website here if you wish to access ENS country studies or other conference papers, including the resulting action statement which is intended as a guide for collective efforts to end the scourge of childhood statelessness. The school outreach project described in this blog was commissioned by ENS and designed with the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion as an expert partner of the ENS campaign.