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To Be Stateless - What Is It Like?

Growing up as a stateless person, Juliette Kando worked and lived in so many countries, she almost lost track of all her adventures.

what-is-it-like-to-be-stateless

A stateless person is someone who does not have a nationality. How does someone end up with no nationality? In some countries, citizens lose their nationality when they move away from their country of birth. This is precisely what happened to my family. I have lived in so many countries that I sometimes lose track. It took decades before one of those countries finally gave me citizenship, but before that, I grew up as a stateless person and lived in no less than 6 different countries experiencing some most unusual events as a result. Those countries are:

  1. Hungary
  2. France
  3. Holland
  4. Germany
  5. England
  6. Spain

1. Hungary

I was born during the second world war in Budapest, Hungary. We were occupied by the Germans, followed by the Russians. My parents, like so many others, having worked in the resistance during the war refused to submit to the new communist regime and decided to move to Paris as political refugees.

2. France

When I was only three years old, my family fled Hungary to France. Hungarian refugees who fled the communist Russian regime automatically, by law, lost their Hungarian citizenship and became stateless. In France, we were issued a huge four pages long “Travel Document” by the United Nations for Refugees.

Lost Mother Tongue

We lived in Paris in great poverty among a then hostile post-war French population. The French kids at school called us “dirty foreigners”. Consequently, my brother forbade us to ever speak Hungarian ever again, even at home, to make sure we became normal i.e French as soon as possible. Unfortunately, this resulted in us children forgetting to speak our own mother tongue (Hungarian) completely. No worries, there are many other languages swimming in the pond.

Lost Dad

My father couldn’t find work and decided to return to Budapest to look for work, promising to send us money. The plan was for him to come back later when he hoped times would be easier. However, by then the *Iron Curtain was firmly closed.

The Iron Curtain

My parents were separated by the Iron Curtain and I didn't see my father again until I was eighteen years old. In Hungary, only old age pensioners were allowed to leave the country. This policy was designed to reduce the number of pensions the government had to pay. Thus political circumstances left my mother, who was a photographer without a work permit, to raise three children on her own in Paris.

Until . . .

3. Holland

De Magere Brug / Skinny Bridge in Amsterdam

De Magere Brug / Skinny Bridge in Amsterdam

A few years later, my mum met Ed, a Dutchman who became our savior and moved our family to Holland. His parents helped us get on our feet. I was now eleven years old and still stateless. The contrast between France and Holland was remarkable. Whereas we had been bullied as “dirty foreigners” at the French school. The Dutch children were extremely welcoming. They found us “interesting French kids” and we suddenly became very popular. In Amsterdam, I completed my schooling and dance studies.

4. Germany

When I was 19 and still stateless, living in Holland, some colleagues and I went by car to audition for the prestigious Deutsche Oper Berlin dance company, well equipped with photographs, training gear, and a lot of hope.

Berlin Before the Wall Went Down

The city of Berlin in those days was still a “Western Island” plonked in the middle of communist East Germany. Because I had never been old enough or had lived for long enough in any single country to be eligible to apply for citizenship, I was still stateless. I learned the hard way that a stateless person could not travel from Amsterdam to Berlin by car because in order to get to West Berlin you had to cross East Germany.

When we reached the East German border, in the middle of Germany, there were guards with mirrors on long handles inspecting the underneath side of all vehicles checking for escapees who might hide under cars to flee the communist regime. One of the guards looked at my huge Travel Document and said he could not let me pass because my U.N. document was not valid in East Germany. I begged and begged, said I must be in Berlin for an audition the next day. I showed him my beautiful ballet pictures and smiled and wriggled my hips a little. Finally, the guard said to wait. He took my document and disappeared into a little office. Over an hour later he came out again smiling, holding a lot of paper.

what-is-it-like-to-be-stateless

How I Became “Luggage”

The guard asked my friend Dolf, the driver of our vehicle, to step out and fill in a form. The form said that I, Juliette Kando, was my friend’s luggage! The friendly guard had managed to beat bureaucracy by putting my name and details down on this “Luggage Form”. He said, “give this at the Berlin border”. On the upside, I passed the audition and decided to, from then on, always fly to Berlin instead of travel by car. I remained in Berlin for five years by which time I could have applied for German citizenship but did not do so, knowing that my next step would be London.

5. England

Aged 25, I was now living in London but still stateless, meaning I neither had a passport nor a nationality. The greatest disadvantage of still being stateless in London was that every time I wanted to visit my mother who was living in Amsterdam, or every time I wanted to travel anywhere out of the country, I needed to apply for a visa. Queuing up for hours at the Home Office with all the other rejects of society like Blacks, Asians and other unwanted foreigners made me feel like an outcast. It was a humiliating but regular part of my life. Diligently I would show my now almost disintegrated, old and yellow, Travel Document covered in stamps and signatures on all sides to collect yet another visa stamp. This practice was a degrading nuisance and an awful waste of time.

How I Finally Became British

Then I met Iain. Once our relationship seemed quite serious, I asked him if he would marry me to simplify my status, to make traveling easier for me. Iain is a very generous and accommodating fellow who agreed to marry me and that is how, at long last, aged 27, I finally acquired a nationality by becoming British, a proud subject of her majesty the Queen of England no less.

It turns out that my husband Iain and I were happily married for 27 years and raised three wonderful British children.

6. Spain

what-is-it-like-to-be-stateless

Once our children had flown the nest and started families of their own, I fled again. This time I did not flee a political regime but the English climate for the eternal sunshine of Andalusia. I am still a British citizen with a residence permit for Spain. However, to this day, I do not consider myself Spanish, British, German, Dutch, French, and, least of all Hungarian for that matter.

Having grown up and lived in all those countries gave me the best education. With 5 languages under my belt, a total lack of patriotism, no allegiance to any particular country, I now consider myself a true European.

A Stateless Anomaly

Interestingly, through our varying pathways, while I am now British, my twin sister is Dutch and my brother is American! But that's another story.

Notes and Further Reading

* The Iron Curtain was the political barrier that divided Europe into two separate areas (Eastern and Western Europe) from the end of World War Two in 1945 until the end of the Cold War in 1991.

More Info: Ending Statelessness

Comments

Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia on December 25, 2020:

Yeah... Let's hope that one day, in the not too distant future, there won't be any borders between countries. Europe did it!

LongTimeMother from Australia on December 22, 2020:

Wow! What an emotional journey that was. I’m in awe of your ability to share so much without wasting a single word. You generated such clear images and I felt I was travelling alongside you.

Thank you for the experience. And congratulations on your many successes. (I feel as though you were ‘successful’ every time you overcame another obstacle.)

I believe you’ve done the world a favour by helping us understand what being Stateless feels like. Thanks again, and best wishes for your future.

Juliette Kando FI Chor (author) from Andalusia on December 14, 2020:

Yes, Peggy, I was briefly reunited with my father but not until I was eighteen when the Hungarian government allowed older people to travel.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 14, 2020:

What an interesting life you led. Was your father ever reunited with your family? So glad that you met Iain, and enjoyed a happy marriage with him, and had three children together. Sunny Spain sounds like a good landing spot!

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