Maria Jakab was born and raised in Poland, but her foster parents had to fight a fifteen-year legal battle for her to receive citizenship.
There’s one thing known for sure about Maria Jakab: She was born on March 16, 1997 on a cold spring day in Sandomierz, Poland. For the doctors and nurses her birth was routine. They asked her mother for her hometown and dutifully wrote it in the hospital records: “Brasov, Romania.”
Five days later Maria’s mother walked out of the hospital and never returned, dropping the little girl into the hands of the state and years of legal wrangling over her citizenship. Children born in Poland only automatically receive Polish citizenship if a parent is Polish or both the parents are “unknown.” According to Maria’s birth certificate, her mother was known and Romanian.
However under Romanian law, an entry on a birth certificate isn’t enough proof to grant Romanian citizenship. Both countries denied her right to citizenship and she was rendered stateless, untethered to any nation.
Accurate statistics for stateless people are hard to come by and no one knows exactly how many children fall into these sorts of gaps in European nations. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees reports that one third of all stateless people worldwide are children, and it’s likely thousands of those are in Europe.
If birth parents simply disappear, like in Maria’s case, it can be difficult to prove what citizenship a child should have. Such children can face all sorts of problems, from trouble getting basic health care to problems enrolling in school or being unable to travel.
“At some stage they will start to question who am I and where do I belong?” says Laura van Waas, a lawyer and researcher at Tilburg University in the Netherlands and one of the authors of a recently published report on childhood statelessness. “It is about having the right to be recognized as a member of a community.”
Advocates believe that cases like Maria’s, which have triggered outrage by the Polish public, point to the need for changes in EU citizenship laws. In Poland, the ombudsman for children’s issues, Marek Michalak, has asked the government to make it easier for guardians of a child to apply for Polish nationality. But Dorota Pudzianowska, an attorney with the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw who worked on Maria’s case, believes the issue remains largely ignored and isn’t improving.
“I think that this may only be the beginning,” said Pudzianowska, who is aware of at least three similar cases in Poland right now.
Marek and Elzbieta Rutyna, a married couple from Tarnobrzeg, didn’t know any of this when they got a call in 1999 from a local orphanage with news that would fulfill their long-held dream of being foster parents for a baby girl. “We wanted a girl and when the orphanage contacted us, we immediately took the offer,” Elzbieta remembers.
When the Rutynas tried to change Maria’s last name to match their own, they ran into immediate problems with Polish authorities.
“They told us they couldn’t make a decision on Maria’s case because she’s not Polish,” remembers Marek. They would soon discover that in the eyes of the law, Maria had no citizenship at all.
During a visit to the Romanian embassy in Warsaw, officials refused to confirm her citizenship, saying both Maria’s biological mother and father had to make official statements. But nobody knew where either of them had gone.
So the family pushed harder with local authorities in Poland. They wondered if officially adopting the little girl would solve everything and grant her Polish citizenship automatically. But a Polish judge advised against it, taking them aside and urging the family to stop. The judge told them Maria could fix everything herself when she became older, but if they kept pushing the issue, the little girl might be deported to Romania.
“The last thing you want is for your kid to be taken away,” Marek said. “So we did nothing at all.”
As Maria grew up, the Rutynas tried to protect her by avoiding telling to her about her complicated situation. But as much as they tried to shield her, Maria remembers the constant feeling that something was wrong. With every class trip she sat out, with every denied request to visit her father when he worked construction jobs in Germany and Cyprus, with every funny look from her peers, she began to wonder what was wrong with her.
“You look different. You have a different name than your parents. People look at you differently,” the now 17-year-old Maria said. “My parents just told me that I had a problem getting a passport. Back then I didn’t understand. I just always asked my parents, ‘Why can’t I visit Dad?’”
In 2009, the family requested the government officially give Maria citizenship. “We simply hoped that someone would have understanding for our situation,” Marek said.
The application was rejected, Maria never had Polish citizenship and was actually Romanian officials said, presenting a document from Romanian authorities saying Maria’s mother existed. Romania responded by still refusing to grant her citizenship.
As a last resort, the family applied for a residence permit to at least legalize Maria’s stay in Poland, but without any identification, officials refused to grant the permit.
Lawyers step in
In 2012, Dorota Pudzianowska and the Helsinki Foundation decided to take on the case. “It’s impossible for people affected by such a situation to deal with it by themselves,” Pudzianowska said. With the help of an international legal firm they tried once more to get citizenship from Romania but were rebuffed.
“From that point it was clear for us, that Maria has to be considered stateless”, Pudzianowska recalls.
She and a team of attorneys worked on the case and made here status as a stateless person the lynchpin of a new application for citizenship. Usually such applications are a few pages long, but Maria’s became a massive book.
The case dragged on for months as Polish media began to cover the case, creating a storm of outrage. Finally, the family and their lawyers applied directly to the Polish president to award Maria citizenship and Marek’s old school-friend, parliamentarian Jan Warzecha, offered his help.
A few months later, in August 2014, a certificate with the Polish seal arrived in the mail. Maria was now a citizen of Poland, and says she is looking forward to her own passport. As soon as she has it, she says she wants to forget her nightmare and visit her brother in England.
Marek and Elzbieta though can’t forget what the family has been through. They want to tackle this problem in Poland once and for all. “We just want to help others who are in our situation,” Marek said.