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.
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.