The international legal definition of a stateless person is set out in Article 1 of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which defines a stateless person as “a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law” […] Some people are born stateless, while others become stateless over the course of their lives.

– from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Thailand, like many other countries outside of the United States, does not grant citizenship jus soli (right of the soil).  Because I was born in a refugee camp, this meant I was legally without nationality.

Nationality is a funny thing.  In some ways, it’s completely arbitrary.  Artificial borders have been drawn over time, as a result of ongoing political chess matches.

If you were born in America, you may take for granted that all the rights and privileges of being an American citizen are automatically conferred upon you.

But approximately 10 million people worldwide have no nationality. They are considered stateless.

Stateless persons have no passport, no driver’s license, no access to healthcare, education, a job or anything that requires some official, government issued document.

I never knew I fell into this category until some occasion prompted me to look at my naturalization certificate for the first time in years.  That was a surreal and drawn-out process, each step taking place months apart.  I was fingerprinted for the first time in my life.  An official asked me questions that most native-born Americans couldn’t answer about their own government.

Nakhon Phanom refugee camp, circa 1982.

Later, I swore an oath of allegiance to this entity that had provided me with refuge for 20-odd years.  Checking in at the INS headquarters, the security guards mistook me for actress Shannyn Sossamon, which is hilarious.  I’m not sure what business she would have there.

Dozens of other immigrants, of various former nationalities, took the oath with us that day.  And at the end of the ceremony, we held in our hands an expensive Golden Ticket.  Not exactly a “Welcome” sign but a guarantee that we could stay without future costly green card renewals. I wondered if I looked just as stunned as the other faces in the room. What should I feel? Relief? Pride? Gratitude?

Some people are hesitant, even vehemently opposed to, forfeiting their nationalities.  I was apathetic.  I didn’t feel like I was giving anything up.  If you asked me if I felt “American,” I would answer yes and no.  My nationality is printed on a piece of paper.  You will find the truth of who I am in the other posts on this blog, in the memories I have translated and interpreted into cohesive stories.


6 thoughts on “Stateless”

      1. noony . . . as a bonifide laotian who lived in a camp . . . did you guys eat insects?
        reason for asking: I am working out a survival plan in case of future economic collapse as well as just for fun and insects are going to play a big part in having a viable food source.

        So since you love to cook . . . what about bugs?

  1. I am definitely interested in this survival plan of yours.

    We ate whatever we could find in refugee camp. This included bugs, snakes, and mud crabs. The only two insect dishes I remember eating from childhood was after we moved to America though. I think you’ve just inspired me for my next blog post. 🙂 Stay tuned!

  2. Dear Noony,

    My name is Ashlee. I’m co-founder of the Youshare Project, with the mission to connect people around the world through true, personal stories. I recently stumbled across your blog and read the above post entitled, “STATELESS,” and, subsequently the one entitled, “Exodu.” Both are beautifully written and incredibly compelling. I think your story would make a wonderful youshare, because it covers an important topic and personal experiences that are severly under-covered in the press. I am wondering if you would consider combining these two stories and adapting it for youshare?

    If this sounds interesting to you, I would love to email you directly with more information and formally invite you to adapt your story to youshare and share it with the project. You have my email address and website. I hope to hear from you soon.


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