Brazil makes dream of belonging come true for stateless activist
Stateless activist Maha Mamo today realized a lifelong quest to belong.
“I don’t know if I’m dreaming, or if this is happening,” she said, moments after receiving Brazilian citizenship at an emotional ceremony in Geneva.
“I never imagined this day would come … this is my life’s dream coming true,” she added.
It has been a long journey for Maha, 30, who was – until today – among millions of stateless people around the world who are denied a nationality, and face a lifetime of exclusions.
“I never imagined this day would come … this is my life’s dream coming true.”
Born in Lebanon in 1988 to Syrian parents, Maha never gained citizenship due to a web of restrictive laws and practices on civil registration and nationality in the two countries she had ties to.
At the ceremony at the United Nations Office at Geneva, she wore a Brazilian flag as a scarf, and a t-shirt with the words: “Everyone has the right to belong.”
She detailed how being stateless had impacted every aspect of her life, beginning with her schooldays, when access to education was gained only as a favour. Being able to obtain medical treatment, pass through a police checkpoint, seek a job or even buy a SIM card for a mobile phone were among daily battles.
“Everything that people take for granted, I had to fight to get it,” she said. “Education, work, health care and travel. My life even was in danger, I could go to jail.”
Maha's quest for citizenship was strewn with obstacles in Syria and Lebanon.
She should have been recognized as a Syrian national as her father, who is Christian, is Syrian. But because her mother is Muslim, it was not possible to register either their marriage or her birth, preventing her from gaining citizenship.
Maha was also not considered Lebanese, as the law there does not allow for acquisition of nationality by birth in the territory, and naturalizations there are extremely rare.
- See also: The Syrians starting over in Brazil
Her quest to belong – shared by her two siblings – finally gained traction five years ago when Brazilian consulates in the Middle East began issuing special visas to Syrians under simplified procedures to allow survivors of the country’s civil war to travel to Latin America’s largest country, where they can then present an asylum claim.
“The only country that accepted me as a human being was Brazil. Not because I was stateless, but because they opened the door to Syrian refugees because of the war," she said.
Maha started out for a new life in Sao Paulo in September 2014, subsequently gaining refugee status in May 2016, with help from UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Last year, the prospect of gaining citizenship finally came into view when Brazil passed its New Immigration Law. With the passage of the law, for the first time Brazil has a Statelessness Determination Procedure. As a first step towards gaining citizenship, she was recently formally recognized as stateless. In her final step, Maha took a Portuguese proficiency exam on October 1.
"Like Brazil is changing my life today, any other country can do it."
After she received the document annoucing her citizenship on Thursday at the Palais des Nations, Brazil’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Maria Nazareth Farani Azevêdo, hugged Maha and dabbed tears from her eyes.
“Moments like this make it meaningful, the work that we do every day,” she told Maha. “We are here every day reading papers and speaking of situations without living those situations. And this moment makes me live a bit your situation, so thank you very much.”
At first, Maha appeared a little dazed. But as the gift of citizenship sank in, she kissed the Brazilian flag she had draped around her neck and said: “I can’t wait to tell my mum and my sister.”
Thanking UNHCR, and then her home country, Brazil, she looked to the future and the work to be done to help the millions of other stateless people who continue to live a life shoved to the margins.
Just "like Brazil is changing my life today, any other country can do it,” she said, in an appeal to UN member states. “And imagine how many lives you can change.”
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.