INTERVIEW-I found a country, but lost my brother - stateless activist

Maha Mamo is seen draped in a Brazilian flag after speaking at The World Conference on Statelessness at the Hague, June 27, 2019. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Emma Batha

'For most people a passport is a travel document, but for me it means everything. It means I exist. It's finally a sign I belong somewhere'

By Emma Batha

LONDON - As a teenager growing up in Lebanon Maha Mamo lived in constant terror of checkpoints, but her only crime was to be born stateless.

With no documents to prove who she was, Mamo feared she could be arrested and locked up indefinitely.

Like other stateless people, she was deprived of basic rights most people take for granted.

Everything from going to school or getting a job to even enjoying a night out with friends was fraught with difficulties.

On Monday, Mamo will tell her story to film star Cate Blanchett at the opening of a major intergovernmental meeting on statelessness in Geneva.

Charismatic, down-to-earth and fluent in five languages, Mamo has become a powerful voice in #Ibelong, a campaign to eradicate statelessness which is estimated to affect about 10 million people worldwide.

"For most people a passport is a travel document, but for me it means everything," said Mamo, who became a Brazilian national last year and now speaks at international events draped in a Brazilian flag.

"It means I exist. It's finally a sign I belong somewhere."

'MASSIVE IMPACT'

Mamo's fate was sealed before she was born when her Christian father and Muslim mother fell in love in Syria. Interfaith marriages were banned so they eloped to neighbouring Lebanon where she, her sister Souad and brother Eddy were born.

"You can only be Lebanese if your father is Lebanese, and we couldn't be Syrian because our parents' marriage was illegal, so we grew up stateless," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"It has had a massive impact all my life. I had many challenges every day. I was afraid of every single thing."

Mamo was rejected by many schools before eventually being accepted by an Armenian school which took pity on the family.

A talented basketball player, she was scouted by professional coaches who believed she had potential to play on the national team - until they realised she had no documents.

"That was when my world came crashing down," she said. "This was the first moment when the deprivations really hit home. But as a teenager I didn't yet understand how big my problem was."

Despite good school grades, her applications to study medicine at university were also rejected.

Health care was another obstacle. To get urgent hospital treatment for a severe allergy Mamo was forced to pretend to be her best friend.

With no papers, even the most mundane things became a logistical nightmare.

"There are simple things you would never imagine that are so impossible; buying a sim card, getting a loan, having a library card or even going to a club to dance with your friends or celebrate a birthday," she said.

"If they ask for ID you have to give up and go home."

In Lebanon, there was the added danger posed by checkpoints.

"If the police stop you then you are going to jail just because you don't have documents," she said.

"Every time I saw one I had to run the other way just because my existence itself was illegal."

Activist Maha Mamo (R), who spent 30 years as a stateless person, is pictured with her brother Eddy and sister Souad. Photo supplied by Maha Mamo

NEW BEGINNING

Desperate for a solution to her predicament, Mamo sent her story to presidents, ministers and any organisation she thought might be able to help - and was met with a wall of silence.

But in 2014 Brazil offered to take Mamo and her siblings under a new humanitarian visa programme it had launched to help Syrians fleeing war.

"I went to Brazil not as a stateless person, but as a refugee. I only knew two things about Brazil - the football and the carnival," said Mamo, now 31 and fluent in Portuguese.

Her arrival in Brazil coincided with the launch of the United Nations' #Ibelong campaign aimed at ending statelessness in a decade.

"For me, my brother and sister that was the hope. In 10 years we would have the chance to be a person, a human being," said Mamo.

But she did not have to wait that long. In 2017, Brazil changed its law to recognise stateless people and provide a route to naturalisation.

Last year Mamo and her sister became the first stateless people in Brazil to be granted citizenship.

Mamo, who is writing a book about her life, recalls vividly the moment when she was presented with her Brazilian passport - ending 30 years in limbo.

"I started shaking and crying," she said. "I did not believe what was happening, that this was my moment when I'm born again and my life would totally change."

However, the ceremony was bittersweet because her brother could not share in her joy.

Just weeks after being granted asylum in Brazil, Eddy had been killed in a street robbery.

"I couldn't make his dream come true, I couldn't make him a citizen of this world," said Mamo. "He died a stateless person."

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