SÃO PAULO, BRAZIL (13 December 2016)

Maha Mamo, a stateless refugee in Brazil, talks about the challenges of a life without nationality

As a child, Maha Mamo wasn’t allowed to go on school trips outside of Lebanon. When the other children left on buses to Syria or Jordan, she remained behind. And even though she was one of the best at basketball, she could never represent her country in competitions. Why? Because she didn’t have a nationality. Maha is stateless. This situation arose from a web of restrictive laws and practices on nationality in the two countries she had ties to: Syria and Lebanon.

Maha’s parents are Syrian nationals of different faiths, her father is Christian and her mother Muslim. Because these mixed-faith marriages are not recognised in Syria, Maha’s parents fled to Lebanon, which is where Maha and her siblings were born.

As Maha’s father is Syrian, according to the Syrian nationality law, she should have been recognised as a Syrian national. However, with her parents being of mixed-faith, it was not possible to register either their marriage or her birth, preventing her from being recognised as a Syrian national or obtaining documents to prove this.

Maha was also not considered Lebanese, as the law there does not allow for acquisition of nationality by birth in the territory and her parents are not Lebanese. Naturalizations in Lebanon are extremely rare.

Caption: Maha and her sister live near Sao Paolo in Brazil. They have both been given refugee status but neither have a nationality. © UNHCR/Gabo Morales

For stateless children such as Maha, the path to adulthood is riddled with problems and frustrations. Services that are usually taken for granted, such as education and healthcare, are only accessible by relying on the good will of individual people. “I had to receive a special exemption to pass my high school certificate,” says Maha whose parents had to beg her school director to allow her and her two siblings to receive an education.

After graduation, only one university, out of the many she had applied to, accepted her. But not to study medicine, which was her dream. “Being stateless hurts much more when you know you are capable of doing so much,” says Maha. “You can’t realize your potential if you are not given the right to exist.”

Maha shows us the documents that she uses to allow her to legally reside and work in Brazil. Maha has been given refugee status but she still does not have a nationality. © UNHCR/Gabo Morales

In her mid-20s, tired of writing letters to ministers begging for a nationality and moving from one job to another for fear of getting caught without the right papers, Maha started thinking that her solution lay abroad. She inquired about resettlement via UNHCR or getting permission to travel abroad but her efforts were fruitless. The visa-processing officer from Canada provided Maha with one of her favourite responses: “Maha, we would love to have you in Canada, but where would we stamp your visa?” It was only after her sister sent letters to every embassy in Lebanon that they got a positive response from Brazil. On 19 September 2014, for the first time in her life, Maha had the legal means to leave Lebanon.

In Brazil, Maha was able to obtain a six-month visa on account of the fact that she was of Syrian heritage and therefore had a possible refugee claim. On May 2016, with the help of UNHCR in Brazil, Maha and her family obtained refugee status in Brazil, giving her similar rights to that of a Brazilian resident but without giving her a nationality. This was the first time Maha could actually hold an ID card that gave her rights. “When I had it in my hands, I cried and screamed and then asked my sister whether she was sure the document was real…” she said. “I couldn’t believe it!”

One month later, Maha’s brother Eddy was killed in a violent robbery in Brazil. “I remember that the first question my brother had asked when he received his refugee status was whether this would allow him to return back home to Lebanon,” she said. To honour his wishes, Maha took her brother’s body back to Lebanon for burial there, in the place Eddy always called his home country. “The saddest part is that Eddy was never able to know what it felt like to be able to legally travel back home.”

If anything, Eddy’s death has given Maha, now a prominent spokesperson for stateless people in Brazil and around the world, even more determination to acquire a nationality and to help others in her situation do the same. A regular panelist at UNHCR workshops, Maha has become part of a coordinated international effort to change laws and practices on nationality spearheaded by UNHCR’s #IBelong campaign. In 2017, the Campaign’s objectives lie in providing equal nationality rights for all, which includes removing gender-discrimination from nationality laws – something that Maha feels very passionately about.

Maha leads a workshop at Google HQ in Sao Paolo. Through UNHCR, she attends many workshops and seminars in Brazil and globally to talk about her experience as a stateless person. ©UNHCR/ Gabo Morales

“I want everyone to know the hell I have lived through and I know one day the president of Brazil will hear my story and give me Brazilian nationality,” Maha stated emphatically. In Brazil, naturalization through residence can take up to 15 years but Maha is hopeful she will be granted hers before this. She says “when I get my nationality I will scream! I will cry! I will update my status on Facebook! I will travel to Disney World! To Paris! To Italy! All over the world!” and adds enthusiastically “I will shout as loud as I can: ‘I finally EXIST!’”

If you want to know more about how you can make a difference to the lives of people like Maha, join our #IBelong campaign to end statelessness in 10 years.

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