‘It’s Like Living in Solitary Confinement, but Out in the World’

‘It’s Like Living in Solitary Confinement, but Out in the World’

‘It’s Like Living in Solitary Confinement, but Out in the World’

Born in Soviet Ukraine and denied status in Canada and the United States, Karina describes the plight of statelessness—living without being recognized by any country at all.


The borders of our world not only cut across international boundaries; they also increasingly stretch deeply into the interior of nations—into our homes, cities, communities, courts, and everyday interactions. Citizenship status, visa status, vulnerability to deportation—these are just a few of the dividing lines increasingly separating our country into different communities with starkly different options for how or if its members become full participants in our national experiment.

As immigrants in the United States, both documented and not, are increasingly under attack—stripped of their status, arrested, and deported—it’s critical that their stories are heard across these borders. “Migrant Voices” is an oral testimony project from The Nation exploring, and listening to, a variety of immigrant voices: from recent arrivals to asylum seekers making their case in the courts, from the undocumented keeping under the radar to the DACAmented on the front lines—people from all over the world who have fled or left their homes and are looking to find, or keep, their place in America.

This is the seventh installment of this series—follow the series here.

* * *

This is my birth certificate,” Karina said, sliding across the table a laminated green square of paper. While the certificate says she was born in Odessa in the USSR, no country actually claims her as its citizen, or is willing to offer her legal status. “I don’t know why Ukraine doesn’t recognize me. I was born there. There’s pictures of me there. There’s proof that I existed there, right?”

Karina and I were in her one-bedroom apartment overlooking the Delaware river in Philadelphia. The decor of the apartment was what I would call millennial Buddhist: a prominent record collection, a sleek entertainment system, and a generously stocked bar underneath an eclectic Buddhist-inspired shrine that included a few salt lamps and a 3-D-printed bodhisattva. We sat at her kitchen table for over four hours, discussing—over coffees (I drank out of a Marianne Williamson mug) and, eventually, wine—her experience with statelessness.

She had a whole bookshelf full of her immigration materials within easy reach, and occasionally leaned over to heft a stack of papers onto the table or rifle through a binder to produce a document to display.

“That’s the only piece of document I had to say I am who I am,” Karina said, pointing to her birth certificate again, “and it’s not even considered legit by the country I was born in.”

In modern history, before the 17th century, human beings were neither stateless nor citizens. We were subjects, slaves, or exercised varying degrees of independence or communal attachment to kingdoms, empires, city-states, commonwealths, or villages. After the rise of nation states, when the kingdoms of Europe were divided into mutually recognized sovereignties, most humans on earth were tagged to the state they resided in. But especially after the world wars of the 20th century, as borders shattered and were rebuilt, some people fell between the cracks of nationality.

In 1948, with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to belong to a state was enshrined as a basic human right. Six years later, the Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defined a stateless person as anyone “who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law.” As law scholar Polly J. Price lays out in the anthology Citizenship in Question, Evidentiary Birthright and Statelessness, the convention obligated contracting states to “treat stateless persons the same as lawful aliens in that country, including granting access to wage-earning employment, housing, public education, and public relief.” The problem, however, was the exclusive vesting of authority in the states, and only the states. When a country, therefore, abjured people or groups of people—typically ethnic or political minorities—some of those people were rendered stateless, shoved into a limbo where they didn’t even have, in political philosopher Hannah Arendt’s memorable phrase, the “right to have rights.”

This political purgatory—where no organized authority purports to offer either benefits or protection—is the state of about 12 million people worldwide, according to the European Network on Statelessness. In addition to cases like Karina’s, some states have moved to turn whole segments of their population stateless: In recent years, the Dominican Republic has effectively rendered the children of Haitian immigrants born in the country stateless, and India’s government last year removed more than 1.9 million Muslims from the citizenship rolls in the northeastern state of Assam—to cite just two examples.

In the United States, until recently, statelessness was deemed a minor issue, affecting only a few thousand people. A recent recalculation, however, puts that number significantly higher, with a new Center for Migration Studies report claiming that there may be as many as 218,000 people who are stateless or at risk of being stateless residing in the shadows throughout the country. Karina and a small group of other stateless people are working to bring attention to the issue and achieve legal status and protection. That number itself, however, may prove to be controversial. It is merely an estimate, and the report itself urges caution: “Many of those included in these provisional estimates may not in fact be stateless.” (The fact that the federal government does not track or collect information on stateless populations, combined with the fear of deportation and incarceration that undocumented stateless individuals face in this country, makes the task of identifying the exact number of stateless individuals quite difficult. The Center for Migration Studies came to their number by counting as stateless or potentially stateless people from certain populations, such as Iraqi Kurds, Meskhetian Turks, Roma people from Italy or Germany, Kuwaiti Bidoon, Rohingya, Dominicans of Haitian ancestry, or ethnic Nepalese born in Bhutan, because these groups are at much greater risk of being stateless.) And yet, given the constraints of counting people not officially registered to any state, the report may also be overlooking stateless people, with the number ultimately unverifiable. As the report notes, “Failing to look for stateless persons, federal, state, and local governments fail to find them.” Many people who are stateless may not even realize their status, and simply identify as undocumented, which, of course, has its own perils.

One not infrequent and disturbing occurrence, as I reported for The Nation in 2016, is that when no country will accept someone the United States is trying to deport, and the government refuses to grant legal status, a stateless person may be indefinitely detained—the state acknowledging presence only enough to lock that person away. With some help from the United Nations, Karina and a few other stateless people organized and founded United Stateless in 2017. The organization seeks to build community and advocate for the rights of the stateless. And yet, as Karina put it, “There is no secret sauce to not being stateless.” In keeping with the culinary metaphors, Karina describes different “flavors of statelessness,” including stateless and DACAmented (people with DACA status), stateless and detained, and stateless and completely undocumented. Karina is the former: After cycling through seven lawyers, she was finally able to figure out how to obtain DACA status, and currently has a work authorization card. Especially, however, as DACA is under threat and its legitimacy is currently being weighed by the Supreme Court, she may once again become stateless and completely undocumented.

On the day we spoke, Karina wore dangling leaf earrings, broad wire-rimmed glasses, and a sporty cardigan with thumb-hooks. The following is from our conversation that day. Out the window, as the December afternoon descended into evening, the Delaware river glugged below us.

* * *

Karina, 31 Years Old, Stateless

I was ashamed, when I was younger I was ashamed. I got scared about what was going to happen to our family when we found out. My parents were scared. We were all scared.

I’m of Armenian Ukrainian descent, born in the Soviet Ukraine, and I’m stateless. People need to know this. And I know, I know there’s more people out there. There has to be more, you know, there has to be more Ukrainian people, Russian-speaking people, and there’s nothing to be ashamed about. We need to have another way of talking about this issue than talking about it in terms of fault, because that’s all you hear within the community.

I was born in 1988, in Odessa, Ukraine. I have a lot of memories of my grandmother in Odessa. In Tbilisi, where my dad is from, there’s a huge Armenian community. They’re refugees from the genocide. That’s how my dad’s family ended up there. He was born in 1956. So my great grandparents were both Armenian genocide survivors. My other grandfather ended up becoming a POW in a Nazi camp, and survived for two and a half years. And then, when he was released, Stalin considered all the newly returned POWs as enemies of the state. So he was put into labor camps for another year. And then he found religion. And he found my grandmother as well, who also had a terrible life. You know, she is a daughter of a survivor of the Ukrainian genocide. My grandfather was eventually sent to Siberia and into exile for 20 years.

My mom grew up in a house being raided all the time. She suffered because she was labeled the daughter of a convict. And she was denied school because of her dad. The judge ordered that family members could spend time in exile to help pay my grandfather’s sentence, so my mom spent a year with my grandfather in Siberia. She can’t drink tea to this day, you know, because that’s all there was in Siberia: tea and butter. There were rats, too. So my mom has a fear of police. So you can imagine her in immigration court. I think my mom has PTSD. She grew up with a tight budget and two kids. She sold carnations and made and sold street food in downtown Odessa. I remember going out with my mom when I was 4. She would put me in a sled—it snows a lot there—an old-school metal sled, me and my sister. My mom would sell carnations and hot food: pirozhki, they’re like these doughy things, almost like empanadas.

So my parents were a mixed marriage. And they had a really hard time in the Ukraine. They got married in 1987, towards the end of Soviet Union. My mom suffered a miscarriage because she was beaten up in the streets in Tbilisi. My dad was also beaten up. He was hazed, denied jobs. They had a hard time living together. For my dad it was the way he speaks Russian, his Caucacus accent.

My dad looks Armenian. The way he speaks Russian is just different. My dad was “the other.” And the Soviets wanted to expel the other. So he was targeted. It became hard, and for a while my parents didn’t live together because of that. They were scared for their kids too, you know, because we were mixed.

And then my parents got an invitation to go to Cuba. I don’t know how they got it. My aunt, my mom’s sister, had done the same thing with her husband and her four children. It was right before the Iron Curtain opened, they wanted to get out. My parents were able to get travel documentation to leave Ukraine. I never had a passport. I was 4 years old. I remember, vividly, on the way there was a layover in Canada, in Newfoundland. And we were supposed to sit on the tarmac and we weren’t even supposed to leave the plane. But, somehow, for some reason, we just got off the plane, and my parents went to immigration at the airport and asked for asylum.

This was ’92. They were denied.

We left Newfoundland and were able to live in Vancouver for a little bit, and then we migrated towards Toronto, St. Catharines, like way outside Toronto, and we lived there. And, you know, my parents took whatever job they could. We lived in an apartment, a nice apartment complex in a nice neighborhood. And my parents took over as maintenance. It was a huge apartment complex. There were other people and other cultures there. I remember our neighbor was from Jamaica and was blasting Bob Marley music. That’s how we discovered Bob Marley, from our neighbor in Canada, my dad speaking to him in his broken English, and the guy giving us the CD. My parents had other odd jobs as well. My mother worked in a matzah factory at one point. They never had status in Canada, and, after four years, they were just scared.

This is 1996 now, two months before my brother was born. My mom was pregnant, and they were like, We need to get out of here. They were afraid of getting detained, getting deported, and my mom didn’t want to go back to Ukraine. My mom didn’t want to give birth to her son in a jail cell. We were also told by family members, Don’t come back. It’s poor, it’s desolate. All we have to eat is macaroni and butter.

My parents sold their things, packed up the car, gave notice to the landlord, and drove to the border. And they weren’t even allowed to ask for asylum. And so they came back and tried another day, like a week later, at a different entry point, and they were denied again. I remember they packed the car three different times to ask for asylum. And so what finally happened was they hired a coyote to help them cross, and we crossed. I remember my dad told me we were going to Disney World. And, to me, it was like, Oh my God, I get to meet Princess Belle!

We had to be quiet, I remember that, too. It was the middle of the night. And that’s it, we were quiet, we rolled into the border. I remember trees, darkness, some water, a guy opening up some kind of barrier, and we went through and then within 10 minutes we were stopped by the Border Patrol.

I remember being taken into the Border Patrol Station. My parents were scared. My sister and I fell asleep. They gave us an Entry Without Inspection, an EWI. And then they gave us a court date somewhere in Texas, but we ended up coming to Philadelphia. There’s a huge Russian-speaking community here, and my parents wanted to have that access. But they didn’t want to live in the inner Russian neighborhood, because they were scared that my sister and I wouldn’t learn English. And they didn’t want us to have an accent. So we didn’t speak Russian at home.

They got a lawyer, and, at that time, in ’96, they were able to apply for driver’s licenses, get work authorization cards, they’re able to work. My mom immediately put an ad out in newspapers and started cleaning houses. And then my dad was able to do a bunch of odd jobs, pizza delivery, construction, but eventually started getting into commercial painting. We lived in West Philly. It was tough in the sense that, everyone was nice, but it was just overcrowded. My parents were able to save up and we end up moving to Drexel Hill. I remember being excited like, Oh my God, we have stairs in our house!

My parents, you know, were asking for political asylum. There were so many different court dates. It’s all kind of a blur because I was so young. But what happened was, they were denied political asylum three different times. Their case reached the Third Circuit and they were denied again. My mom got nervous being questioned again and again, and she said the wrong dates here and there. They also referred to the State Department’s opinion on Ukraine, which at that time, was like, Oh, it’s a democracy. Everything is fine there. So my parents were denied and then we were all placed under removal proceedings. And that was when we discovered we were stateless. When we went to the Ukrainian embassy to get travel documentation to go back, and we were told they didn’t recognize our Soviet passports. I was a freshman… or maybe a sophomore in high school. We were given a form that said, We don’t recognize you as a citizen.

We were all in the room when we learned. My parents were freaking out. They were crying. My dad went to go smoke a cigarette. It was trauma: Oh my God… like, the world is… Nothing is okay anymore. My parents are not okay. I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to do. It was very confusing. The word “stateless” wasn’t mentioned. They were just like, We don’t recognize you as citizens. And that’s it.

I had a lot of fear, but I didn’t know where to put that fear. Was I supposed to go to a school counselor? What am I going to tell her? Everyone was thinking about school and sleepovers and I’m like, I’m about to be deported. There was no one to talk to.

And then suddenly, Bush’s immigration raids started happening everywhere. I was just so scared, and then shortly after that we were visited by ICE, and we are so lucky my parents weren’t detained. And I think that has a lot to do with their race. I mean, they don’t fit the profile of who ICE normally detains. The ICE agent was a nice lady with short black hair, and I remember she was wearing this vest, and I remember going downstairs and she wanted to check that we were all there. She wanted to look around our house. And then she said that she’d be back at this and this time and my parents had to rearrange our schedules. And when she came back, she brought a colleague with her who put foot monitors on my parents, put a phone tap thing on our phone, and we were told to pick up the phone after two rings. I remember my parents made a joke about it, like, well, at least our pants cover it! It’s called ISAP, the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program. Every day someone would come, and then it became once a week, and then it became once a month. It was a mark of shame. My parents were ashamed about it, you know, and I internalized it. It took me a long time, into adulthood, to realize that this is a form of oppression.

And I just got really secretive about it. There wasn’t a safe space to talk about it. The Dreamer movement didn’t happen until I was in my early 20s. Through the years, after my parents were visited by ICE, they were on the supervision program. And then things kind of just settled. We just went back to living our life. There were no more court dates. They couldn’t deport us because we belonged to no country. So we were like, OK, well, I guess we’ll just live. And I kind of just shoveled that into an eating disorder. And I lost all this weight. And when people see you lose weight, they’re like, Good job! You know, especially, in high school, they’re like, Oh, you look so great! It’s like cutting, it’s like punishing yourself. It feels good to not eat and starve a little bit. You know, it’s something I’m working through still.

I didn’t hear the term “stateless” until UNHCR posted a video of this woman, Tatiana, who I later met, who’s also from the former Soviet Union, from Ukraine. And she talked about her story, about being detained, but she also talked about ICE and the supervision program, and I was like, Oh my God, this is our story.

Then I started reading about statelessness, but there wasn’t much information. I read a PhD paper by a woman professor from South Carolina who argued that the first stateless people in the US were the black slaves. And it makes sense. They don’t know where they’re from. They have no documentation, right? And they’re not full citizens. And then I learned about the Japanese internment camps, and how the US government denaturalized US Japanese ethnic citizens. I’m like, Oh, my God, that happened, you know.

It made me feel empowered, like, Oh my goodness, I’m not alone. And then you hear that Einstein was a stateless person before he was a refugee. So it’s like, Wow, this has been happening. Then I learned about my family history, the Armenian genocide. My family was also stateless leaving the Ottoman Empire. It empowered me, but it made me angry. Like, why is this happening to me? Why is this still happening? You know, I never did anything. I’m not taking things away from people. I’m paying taxes. My biggest line back then was: I’m paying taxes, I’m paying into taxes to help get college education for other people that I can’t even get to, you know. It made me really sad and angry.

I wanted to forget. I worked babysitting and for a catering company here and there, you know, restaurant work, that kind of thing. And my mom’s client, one of them was like some kind of dean at Villanova University and so he was able to get me in. And another client of hers was just like, I’ll write a blank check to pay for her first year of school. My mom had good clients. And the idea was for me to figure it out. Well, there was nothing to figure out because there were no options. And I even worked at the law school’s financial aid office, I would look through graduate law students’ financial aid packages and tell them what they’re missing. And then I went to the president of Villanova, and I was like, Hey, you know, this is my problem, I love it here, I’m taking extra classes in the summer, can you help me? And he was like, Sure. And the next thing I know, a week later, I was fired from my job, and I had no way to reenroll.

When I turned 18 I wasn’t placed under ICE supervision. My lawyer figured out that some documents had a misspelling of my Alien number, one digit off or something. So they didn’t process me. But, because I wasn’t under ICE supervision, I couldn’t get a work authorization card. So the only ID I had was my Villanova school ID.

So I went to work at Starbucks as a barista. And I just wanted to put my head in the sand. And I was diagnosed with diabetes and, thank goodness for, at that time, Starbucks insurance. So I was able to afford my health care through working at Starbucks. And then I got so confident and started to put myself on OK Cupid and met my husband that summer. There was no way for me to go back to school. Because of the money, not being able to get financial aid. And then they started slashing my hours, and then I lost my health insurance.

We had to grow up really fast, my husband and me. We couldn’t be just kids anymore, because of my immigration stuff, because of statelessness, and because of my type one diabetes. I was 22 when I married him. We were like, Let’s get married. Because I love you and I want to protect you. And to me, it’s like, well, if anything ever happens to you, I want to be in that room when you die.

I was told all my life, Just get married. My parents, other lawyers, they all told me that. And so we went to Steve, my lawyer, and guess what he said? Just get married. Don’t have an ID? It’s okay, he said. You should go to Maryland, because Maryland doesn’t require a state ID to get married. So I went there with my Villanova ID, my birth certificate, and Kevin and I got married in Maryland. Right on the border of Delaware. That’s where we get good alcohol, because it’s so cheap there. There’s a good state store there. So we loaded up on alcohol and came home.

And then we showed up back to the lawyer, and it looks like he just opened the file for the first time. He’s like, Oh, wait a minute. You can’t apply for a marriage visa because you have this EWI. He’s like, Oh, this is gonna be tricky.

I walked out and the lawyer screamed behind me, Don’t forget to tell your parents they owe me $30,000 dollars. My parents spent over $50,000 on this man, you know, because they believed that he could help us. It’s hard to be angry with him, because of his ignorance. You don’t know what you don’t know, but I was so angry. And we went to like four more different lawyers. And none of them knew what statelessness was. They were like, Come again? So you can’t be deported? They didn’t understand. So I’m explaining to them what it is. Because of the way I entered the US, I need a reentry to be able apply for a marriage visa, but, because of my final order of deportation, if I step foot outside the country, I’ll be barred from coming back in for 10 years. The only option I have now is to reopen my case and ask USCIS to have a retrial.

And then we found David Bennion. He’s with Free Migration Project. And we found him because way back when I was involved with the undocumented community, volunteering with Dreamers, they did a lot of protests, and David was involved as an actual activist, but also counsel. And so we reached out to David and he thought we should apply for DACA. I was like, Oh, yeah, really?

But it worked. It was the best thing, 24 years old, getting your ID for the first time. Oh my God, to be to be able to go to a bar and order your own drink. It was huge. You know, even just simple things, like going to go get mail, getting a package when it’s been held. Getting your own bank account. Not being afraid of the question, Can I see your ID? Because going back to the shame, embarrassment, I felt so embarrassed not having an ID, like it’s my fault. It’s crazy how conditioned I got, being ashamed for something that I had no control over. And not having someone else to talk to about this, someone who is in your same shoes. It’s like living in solitary confinement, but out in the world. It’s such a bizarre thing. You know?

I feel sometimes that I inherited a problem, like a Greek tragedy. And learning how to live with it, and learning how to accept it, and being angry about it, and being empowered by it, you know, being humbled by it, but also being hurt by it. It’s just constant. And especially as a white woman in America with no accent married to a software developer, you know, people just expect something. Oh, aren’t you married yet? Aren’t you a citizen yet?

It’s like, Well, you’re not really listening to my story, because there is no option. Sometimes I think about how I don’t know what it’s like not to have this problem. I just don’t know. I don’t know what it would be like, one day, to be like, Oh my God, I’m not stateless anymore.

My family has a sense of humor. So we laugh about this. Or cry. That’s why we always have wine. It’s so fucking stupid. I mean, my sister is 31. And she’s been doing ICE check-ins for over 10 years. I think her next check-in is in March. And if you miss your appointment, that’s bad. And she’s married. She has a son. They’re trying for a second kid. But what if, by chance, you’re in labor, in the hospital, and it’s your check-in? What happens? You know, it’s just like stupid things like that. It’s so mundane. But like, if you miss it, then you’re criminalized.

Slashing nationality out of your hands is the first step to dehumanization. Seventy-five percent of all stateless people are minorities. I don’t know why Ukraine doesn’t recognize me. I was born there. There’s pictures of me there. There’s proof that I existed there, right? I can’t help but think that because my last name is Ambartsoumian, maybe they don’t want to give an Armenian status or citizenship.

UNHCR helps us with travel and accommodations for some of the meetings United Stateless has. When they gathered us in one room for the first time, we sat there crying. We sat there all listening to each other’s stories. And, to me, it was like, Oh my God, I’m not alone. Here’s seven other people, holy shit, like I never knew. We’ve been getting hits from other stateless people who have discovered our website. Some people don’t want to have a conversation over the phone. They just want to e-mail back and forth, and we respect people’s privacy because it’s also very traumatizing to meet someone else for the first time. It’s intense.

We’re doing advocacy now. Finding out who are our friends in Congress. We’ve been doing a lot of work with academics, too. Our goal is to pass a law to recognize those people. The US should have stateless status determinations. They do the same thing for refugees, like a refugee status determination. And while you’re in that determination process, give people the right to work and to take care of themselves. Stop putting stateless people in detention in hopes of deporting them. Stop ICE supervision over stateless people. Some people we know have been on supervision for 30 years. Can you imagine? Let’s stop that. Let’s give them freedom to work and be mobile. And once you determine they’re stateless, do the same thing you do for refugees. Most likely, with stateless people in the US, we don’t need housing or support. We just need a piece of paper. Sometimes, I’m cautious of throwing around the “citizenship” word. Because nothing gets people hot and heavy like citizenship—Oh, how dare we give that?

The Russian-speaking community and the Armenian community and the Arab community that migrate to the US, they don’t talk about being undocumented, not like other groups. It’s very hush-hush. It’s very quiet. People have told me within my community that I did this to myself. They don’t understand it. You know how every newly arrived immigrant wants to close the door behind them? They can’t fathom this idea that, Hey, things happen that are out of your control and that completely fuck your shit up. Right? And, I think a lot of people are silenced, and I think the Latinx community has done a great job of being empowered. Being part of the Dream activists and seeing a lot of the undocumented community support each other and the movement gives me a lot of empowerment. Like their protest about being unashamed. And that’s what we want to build. Sometimes it seems like some of this stuff happened overnight, but there’s been generations and generations of activists. I know this is a long game. And it might take five years to get like an inch, right? Or it might not. Maybe it will be quietly passed. I hope so. I don’t need fucking public attention. Let’s do it quietly and move on. But I needed to find my community, because there’s a huge difference between us and the undocumented, and we should understand statelessness. It’s a separate issue.

But this isn’t just about me. It’s about my family. I want my mom to go visit her parents’ grave. I want my mom to be eligible to get her Medicare and Social Security when she retires. I want my sister not to be worried about her children and her being stateless. What if something ever happened to her husband and she couldn’t have access to her kids? I don’t want to be this way for the rest of my life. I feel not a sense of responsibility but a sense of, like, a means of empowerment. I feel like I’m in an interesting position where I have time. I have privilege to talk about this. You know, and I want to use that. And I feel like it’s almost like a calling. You know, my grandfather was a community leader, and I guess it runs in the family. My family survived the Ukrainian genocide and the Armenian genocide, and they both survived the Soviet oppression. When I needed to find what it means to be a human being, I relied on my stories.

It just hits me sometimes. Like, I’m not normal. And I even get really upset. I wish I was normal. You know, I wish I was basic. But Kevin reminds me sometimes, You are so unique, I’m unique and special, blah, blah, blah. But does it have to be so painful? You know, can this stop already? Even with the United Stateless, sometimes I just get so sick of talking about statelessness. I’m just like, I’m done with the statistics. I’m done with the research. I don’t want to read this painful story anymore.

This is the seventh installment in this series—follow the series here.

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