Wasif Almady, 34, is a stateless Palestinian and a former resident of Iraq who fled to Cyprus in 2010 for a peaceful life away from persecution and the sectarian violence that erupted in Iraq in 2003. He lives today in Cyprus on subsidiary protection status with his wife, their two children and his mother. Born stateless, he hopes to acquire Cypriot citizenship and restore the sense of belonging that has always been missing from his life.
Wasif was born in Saudi Arabia where he resided with his family for twelve years before moving to Iraq where they stayed for another decade until the Iraq war forced them to flee and seek refuge in Cyprus.
Before the war, Wasif and his family had a good life in Iraq. As Palestinians, they generally enjoyed a broad range of rights, including residency, work and study; except for the right to obtain Iraqi nationality.
But the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 marked a dramatic change in their lives. Many Palestinians were subject to harassment, targeted attacks, kidnapping, abduction, torture and extra-judicial killings. Verbal and physical abuse became commonplace as many Iraqis sought revenge for the perceived preferential treatment the Palestinian community received under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
“We [Palestinians] were perceived by the new Shia Government that we were taking the side of Saddam and that we, as Sunnis, were against them. When explosions or assassinations were taking place, we were the first ones to be blamed… We felt threatened all the time,” recalls Wasif.
“I used to wonder inside Baghdad in fear of being caught …. I could not hold my original ID where my ethnicity and birthplace were revealed… and that was very dangerous; I would expose myself to be arrested immediately at any checkpoints.”
“I fled Iraq at that moment in 2006 and went to Syria and Yemen where I stayed for two years hoping the violence will de-escalate. Then, I had to return back to Iraq to continue and finish my studies at the University. It was still very dangerous, but I had to take the chance,” he says.
With sectarian violence continuing and situation in Iraq remaining precarious, Wasif and his family finally fled Iraq in 2010, when Wasif completed his undergraduate studies. Cyprus was the safest and closest destination.
“We just wanted a safe country to live. We could not go to Saudi Arabia as they didn’t give us a visa. Cyprus was very close and from Syria we came by boat to the north of Cyprus and then crossed here. Reaching another country in Europe would involve irregular and unsafe travelling, especially for my ageing parents.”
“I believe Cyprus is a very good place especially for my family,” says Wasif who met his future wife, also a Palestinian from Iraq, and had their two boys, Mahmoud and Hilbert Ibrahim, four years old and 15 months old, respectively.
Wasif with his 15- month old son Hilbert Ibrahim, named after the influential German mathematician David Hilbert. © UNHCR/Sebastian Rich
Wasif lives today in Cyprus as a subsidiary protection beneficiary with his wife their two children and his mother. © UNHCR/Sebastian Rich
Wasif with his published book in Maths “Powerful techniques and derivation of an analytical solution for solving a differential equation” that has been distributed to local Universities and included in the 2017 Bulletin of Cyprus Bibliography. © UNHCR/Sebastian Rich
Wasif’s mother, Salwa Almady, born in 1948 in Haifa, with her grandson Hilbert Ibrahim. © UNHCR/Sebastian Rich
For Wasif, a holder of a BSc in Chemical Engineering, his dream has always been to continue his studies, but being stateless without a national passport of any country had stood in his way.
In Cyprus he managed to pursue his studies. With scholarships granted from the Frederick University, Wasif got a master’s degree (MSc) in Oil & Gas and Offshore Engineering and will soon be completing his PhD in Electrical Engineering that he started in 2019.
Meanwhile he published a book in Maths following his professor’s encouragement who believed in Wasif’s maths skills and talents.
“It [the book] has been well received. I think it’s OK, it explains a few mathematical concepts in a simple and friendly way,” says Wasif smiling with modesty when asked about the course of his published book.
In fact, his book “Powerful techniques and derivation of an analytical solution for solving a differential equation” has been distributed to local Universities and has been included in the 2017 Bulletin of Cyprus Bibliography issued by the Ministry of Education and Culture.
Parallel to his studies, Wasif is working. He initially worked as a teacher at an Arab speaking private school in Nicosia for almost five years, but with the recession the school shut down.
With the onset of his PhD studies in 2019, Wasif started working with a local company on a number of projects that develop software for scientists and engineers. Till today he continues working with the company but on a pro bono basis.
He currently works at the Kofinou Reception Center as a translator, an experience that he describes as unique and valuable.
“I’ve always been dedicated to science but now through all the refugee stories that I hear I’ve come to realise the qualities that make us human and how connected we are,” Wasif confides.
In Cyprus, there are two statuses granted to people seeking international protection, depending on their circumstances. Individuals who are deemed to have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” because of who they are, according to the definition in the 1951 Refugee Convention, are granted status as refugees; and people who flee indiscriminate violence against civilians in their home country qualify for subsidiary protection.
While the subsidiary protection status allows persons fleeing war and conflict to reside, work and study in Cyprus it cannot be a permanent status for people, like Wasif, who cannot return and have no country to return to.
“I want to escape from this situation. We, Palestinians, have been living as stateless for a very long time, for so many generations. Generations of Palestinians do not belong to any State, we don’t have the citizenship of any country. We’ve been always living like foreigners, wandering between Arab countries.”
In his quest for stability and security for himself and his family, Wasif applied for Cypriot citizenship in 2017; his application was rejected three years after on the ground – as the decision reads – that he doesn’t have a regular source of income.
“I have always been self-reliant and working in Cyprus, except for a period of less than two years, in 2017-2019,” says Wasif who otherwise fulfills the formal criteria set out in the law and wonders what led to the rejection of his application. The strong recommendation by his professor that had been submitted in support of Wasif’s naturalization application, pointing out that Wasif is a valuable asset in the academic scientific community, was not enough to persuade the Interior Ministry to grant Wasif with Cypriot citizenship.
“It would be great if I can become a citizen in this country for my peace of mind, for my children, to stabilize my condition and create our roots here. This is the priority for me. If I died the next day, I would want to know that my sons and my family will be secure that they would not be stripped of their subsidiary protection status at any moment and have nowhere to go to,” says Wasif who appealed the decision with UNHCR’s and the Cyprus Refugee Council’s support.
UNHCR considers citizenship as a fundamental element of human security. Citizenship provides people with an identity and a sense of belonging, entitles its holders to the protection of the State and enables their access to social, economic, civil and political rights. Recognising the difficulties refugees and stateless persons face by lacking an effective nationality, both the 1951 Refugee Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons urges States to facilitate the naturalisation of international protection beneficiaries and stateless persons.
The acquisition of citizenship is often viewed by refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries, as the most potent measure for their inclusion into the economic, social and cultural fabric of the host society. It allows them to become full members of society and enjoy all the same rights as nationals, including the right to vote in national and EU elections.
Some of the difficulties refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries face in their everyday lives due to lack of citizenship range from restrictions on access to a number of social schemes, such as subsidized housing and scholarships to obstacles, as has been recently observed, in having their residence permits renewed, even while there had been no change in the circumstances that led to their international protection status.
Other obstacles relate to travelling abroad for study or employment purposes, as in the case of Wasif who could not attend conferences abroad due to lack of travel documents as a subsidiary protection holder and a stateless person.
While being a refugee should not last forever, finding permanent solutions for refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries has always been difficult, with slim chances of achieving naturalization or long-term residence. A recent Bill tabled by the Interior Ministry seeks to introduce additional conditions for international protection beneficiaries to meet the qualifying criteria for naturalization, potentially further limiting access to citizenship for refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries living in Cyprus for years.
Cyprus is one of the three EU Member States that has not signed the Statelessness Conventions of 1954 and 1961.
Yet, Wasif does not lose hope. He appealed the refusal of his naturalization application hoping to have the decision overturned and acquire through the Cyprus citizenship the stability and security that himself and his family deserve. Till then their lives will hang in the balance.