After decades in the shadows, stateless activist says 'finally I exist'
Activist Maha Mamo’s face lights up as she recalls the moment a year ago when Brazil granted her citizenship, ending her 30-year quest to belong.
“It felt ‘wow!’ I exist, finally. I have the freedom to choose whatever I want and to live the way I want to do whatever I want,” said Mamo, who had draped a Brazilian flag around her shoulders in a display of pride in her new nationality.
She was speaking about statelessness with Goodwill Ambassador Cate Blanchett before an audience of hundreds of delegates in Geneva at the 70th session of the Executive Committee of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Statelessness blights the lives of millions of people globally. Holding a nationality is the gateway to basic rights such as access to health care, education, jobs and free movement, or even the ability to open a bank account or buy a SIM card for a mobile phone.
The forum aimed to humanize the problem of statelessness, to spur action and to show that the goal of UNHCR’S 10-year #IBelong campaign is not simply to reform dry legal processes but to offer hope. Speaking to the issue ahead of the discussion, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi stressed that the global problem had very personal repercussions and any discussion of it must bear in mind its impact on individuals.
“As recently as five years ago, public awareness of statelessness, and the harm it causes, was still negligible. That is changing, and today the prospect of ending statelessness entirely has never been closer,” said Grandi.
“And yet the progress is far from assured: damaging forms of nationalism, and the manipulation of anti-refugee and migrant sentiment – these are powerful currents internationally that risk putting progress,” he said.
"So many people living under a perpetual stigma."
Mamo said she was born in Lebanon to Syrian parents, but was unable to secure her nationality. At first, she was unaware that she lacked nationality as she grew up, but gradually the problem became more significant.
In 2014, she and her siblings were resettled to Brazil as refugees. A month after they were granted refugee status there, armed robbers murdered her brother. That tragedy, coming so soon after the family’s joy, redoubled her commitment as an activist to end statelessness. In 2018, Brazil gave her citizenship.
For her part, actress Blanchett acknowledged that until a few years ago she had been unaware that statelessness was a global issue. To illustrate the problem, she invited the audience to imagine their lives without a driver’s license, passport, credit cards or health card.
“I couldn’t believe that there were so many people living under a perpetual, ongoing, generational stigma,” she said.
Despite challenges and pushback from some states that risk putting the eradication of statelessness into reverse, Kyrgyzstan this year became the first country in the world to eliminate it.
Speaking in the general debate, Kyrgyzstan Minister for Foreign Affairs Chingiz Aidarbekov was clear that the responsibility lay with states.
“They are key players and they establish the rules for issuing citizenship or withdrawing it,” he told the forum. “We believe that political will and connected action of states and mutual cooperation will help us to eradicate this problem around the world.”
A lawyer from Kyrgyzstan, Azizbek Ashurov, will on Monday receive the UN Refugee Agency’s 2019 Nansen Refugee Award for his work to end statelessness in the Kyrgyz Republic.
Writing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and additional reporting by Kate Bond.