The Ambassador of the Stateless

by Indu Bhadran

Maha Mamo, born in Lebanon, didn’t have a passport till the age of 30. Today, she is the new voice for stateless people and shares her experience on TED Talks. Read our portrait of her journey, her struggles, and – finally – her sense of belonging

While speaking to her, Maha Mamo seems quite excited about her travels to New York, Portugal, Italy, and the Netherlands. She laughingly says that she always packs her bags at the last minute. Maha Mamo was 30 years old when she got her first passport. Until then she belonged nowhere. It was a gruesome journey for her, her sister, Souad, and brother, Eddy, who had no nationality. Their crime? Being born to a Christian father and a Muslim mother in Syria. Syrian law did not officially recognize mixed-faith marriages at the time, due to which in 1985 her parents fled from Syria to Lebanon where Maha Mamo and her siblings were born. And in Lebanon neither she nor her siblings could acquire Lebanese citizenship as the law there does not pass on nationality by birth. There was not a single document to prove her existence. All doors for her were closed.

As stateless people, one of the first hurdles the three children faced was education. Most schools denied admission until her mother requested and convinced one of the school directors to accept her children. They finally got into school, got good grades, and were passionate about sports. Over time, Maha realized that being stateless came with many more problems than she had ever imagined – getting medical assistance, for example or even simple things like getting a phone number or walking out in the street. “Police checkpoints used to freak me out,” says Maha, as she knew that she could be arrested at any moment, given that she did not possess any documents that proved her identity.

She acts quickly because she knows the value of time

Maha Mamo is quick in responding to you when you need an answer from her. A problem solver, she makes it a point to act quickly because she knows the value of time. As a young girl, Maha always kept searching for a solution to the difficulties she faced. At home, this topic was forbidden because every time someone brought it up, her parents would break into an argument. It was her best friend, Nicole Khawand, and her family who were Maha’s biggest strength during those times. With this new-found support, she started to learn about laws in Lebanon and Syria and tried to reach out to anyone who she thought could help her. Later, she started contacting the embassies around the world, some of which didn’t reply and those who did simply refused to help. One country, after denying her nine times, accepted her request the 10th time, and that country was Brazil. It was the year 2014 and Brazil was helping Syrian refugees out with a special type of visa and issuing a specific passport called ‘Laissez-Passer’,  which helped Maha and her siblings get passports. Maha finally became a naturalized Brazilian citizen on October 4, 2018.

“Stateless people go through a lot in their daily lives, starting from the moment they wake up, they should worry about the challenges they will have to face, because everything a normal person takes for granted in life, a stateless person should struggle to acquire it. Stateless people are denied their social, economic, and even legal integration as a human being,” says Maha, who is now an active volunteer at UNHCR. She believes in their mission and vision and they give her a platform to share her story through many events with parliamentarians, governments, and ministers – people who are in power and responsible for changing the gaps in the laws of their countries.

“What I am doing today, in my daily life, is to do my best in order to bring an end to statelessness in the world and to raise awareness by sharing my story, giving a face for the term ‘stateless’ that not everyone has heard of, and to strive for a better world where everyone has the right to belong and exist”, says the 31 year old who will be in Sanremo, Italy,  to give a lecture on statelessness to the International Institute for Humanitarian Law. She is also a part of the #ibelong campaign, a global action plan, started in 2014 by UNHCR with the goal to end statelessness by the year 2024. Maha talks about the presence of gender discrimination in nationality laws worldwide. She says there are 25 countries in the world where a woman cannot pass on her nationality to her children, which, she emphasizes, is obvious discrimination. But the good thing is that one of the action plans of the #ibelong campaign is to remove gender discrimination from nationality laws.

The importance of ‘belonging

Why was it important for her to ‘belong’? “For me, everyone has the right to belong, and the importance of belonging is way more than just having a document, it is that sense of power you have to monitor your life unfold in front of you, to make free choices in your life that you are responsible for, to dream about a better future, to plan simple things, and to be able to live a normal life like anyone else.” When she was a little girl, reminisces Maha, she saw this quote from Robert Baden-Powell which said, “Try and leave this world a little better than you found it,” and then she decided to become a doctor. Now with her line of work, she believes that she could achieve even more. “I am sure I will not be able to help the ten million stateless people out there even though I really want to, but changing a few lives made me realize that I am capable of making this world a better place to live.” She intends to study international law and human rights, subjects that would help her in her mission.

She calls herself the happiest person in the world right now as a Brazilian citizen and her future is clear. She will keep on fighting for the rights of stateless people. “I would share my story again and again and again until it reaches every single person on this earth so that they can take actions in their own country for being stateless. Because for me, I didn’t choose to be born in Lebanon, nor did I have the chance to choose my parents, the only choice I have in this life is to never give up.”

There is no wonder this young girl made it from such grim circumstances- with her zest, determination,  and strength of character, she could easily become the voice of millions of stateless people and help change their lives forever.


Watch Maha Mamo’s Ted Talk here: 


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