Tatiana spent nearly 30 years without a passport. Now she has documents that give her rights and a voice
Tatiana Filatova is beaming with satisfaction as she leaves a Warsaw polling station, where she has just voted for the first time in her life at the ripe old age of 69. She has had her say in the Polish presidential election.
“For so many years I was struggling to get documents,” she says. Tatiana, who previously had a Soviet passport, was stateless in Poland for nearly three decades. She only recently received Polish citizenship.
UNHCR is campaigning to end statelessness, which affects at least 10 million people worldwide. Poland is one of three EU countries yet to ratify the UN’s two conventions on statelessness (1954 and 1961).
“I am happy Tatiana’s many years as a stateless person came to an end and that she was granted Polish citizenship,” says Christine Goyer, UNHCR’s representative in Poland. “However, there are more stateless people in Poland, who remain without a solution and live in legal limbo, unable to access their basic rights. This is why UNHCR encourages Poland to become a party to the two statelessness conventions, to better identify, protect and find solutions for stateless persons.”
Tatiana lives in a hostel for the homeless, on a tiny welfare benefit. Her story illustrates how a stateless person can fall through society’s cracks, missing out on many things that citizens take for granted, simply for lack of documents. It is a long story that begins back in the USSR.
Tatiana was born in 1951 in Chelyabinsk in the Urals. Her father, a chemist from the Moscow region, was in a labour camp there under Stalin. Her mother was a local Urals woman. Only after Stalin died in 1953 was the family free to move. Tatiana has happy memories of travelling with her father in the Soviet Union when she was growing up.
Tatiana studied medicine in Leningrad. She married a Chechen and went to live with his family in Kazakhstan. (They too had been exiled under Stalin.) Later Tatiana followed her husband to Chechnya. They lived in Urus Martan and had two sons.
Tatiana says that as a woman in Chechnya, she was expected to stay at home. She prefers not to talk about how she left Chechnya and arrived in Warsaw in 1991, as the Soviet Union was collapsing. She says only that it was a “miracle”. She left her sons behind and is uncertain what became of her husband as Chechnya descended into war.
The Soviet passport on which she had travelled expired. Tatiana tried to obtain a new Russian one but had no joy. Thus she ended up stateless in Poland. She did work, albeit unofficially, and she never slept on the streets. “I was never homeless or unemployed and I could see a doctor,” she says. “It was just lack of documents that was the problem.”
In fact, Tatiana felt at home in Poland. “When I came to Warsaw, it was as if I already knew the place,” she says. She found comfort in Catholicism and various Catholic groups supported her. She was able to earn her living as a translator and helped others who had come from the former Soviet Union.
These days Tatiana lives in one of seven houses for the vulnerable run by the “Bread of Life” organisation, founded by Polish nun Sister Małgorzata Chmielewska. Tatiana’s house has 100 residents with various disabilities or social problems. Tatiana shares a room with six other women. She makes herself useful by cleaning and cooking.
“It is very hard,” she says. “I cannot put it into words, I have no privacy…”
But receiving a dowód osobisty (Polish ID) and the promise of a passport has brightened her spirits. She made use of her new-found right to vote in the first round of the presidential election on 28 June and will vote again in the run-off between the top two candidates in July.
Not only was it the first time she had voted in Poland but the first time she had ever voted. “Back in the Soviet Union, there was nobody to vote for,” she says.
At nearly 70, she realises that statelessness robbed her of opportunities – to work officially, to build up savings – that will not come again. At the same time, she has plans. Despite her age, she hopes to get a paid job, to travel and perhaps to get some accommodation of her own.
“If God wants to, He gives,” she says. “The Universe is very clever. It hears what people really want and it knows what will be right for them and useful for others.”