For many stateless people, living in the shadows is a common thing. Thomas Eshaya spent 30 years in hiding. In the end his lack of nationality became his pathway to citizenship.
Thomas Eshaya needed a visa to accompany his wife to Spain for their honeymoon in 2013, but standing in front of the Spanish embassy in Athens, Greece, the old fears came flowing back.
For a moment the gnawing feelings that have followed Eshaya his entire life, a worry that someone might ask him for his ID, that something could go wrong, bubbled to the surface of his mind. In that moment he remembered the very real fear that he could end up in immigration detention if someone were to learn he was in Greece illegally as a stateless man.
Eshaya, a tall and broad-shouldered man with long black hair and 42 years of life weathered into his stature, appeared stoic and confident to the passersby on the street. But inside his mind, a lifetime of feeling incomplete made him unsure and nervous.
If anything went wrong, he had a lot to lose: he has fathered two sons and lived almost his entire life in Greece. As a child, he came as a stateless migrant from war-torn Lebanon and slipped through the cracks of the Greek immigration system, which was less strict than it is today. And although he worked in a factory and as a house painter, he was never able to regularize his status. For more than three decades he survived in the shadows.
Only through the help of a local attorney, Erika Kalantzi, has Eshaya managed to get permission to stay in Greece – something that eludes so many stateless people. Still the fears are far from gone. He’s never been Greek and he still isn’t. And as a stateless man, he knows he’s under the protection of no one.
A life underground
How exactly Eshaya became stateless isn’t clear. He thinks his roots may be Palestinian but he’s not sure. His family members thought of themselves as Lebanese, but they don’t have Lebanese papers to prove it. His mother never discussed the situation, or explained what happened or why – and it never occurred to Eshaya to bother to ask her before she died. He felt Greek anyway, he says. There was no reason to question his status.
From documents and the few bits and pieces of family history he could remember about his arrival in Greece, he thinks he was four-years-old when he, his mother and his two brothers left Lebanon — his parents had been separated and his father was out of the picture completely.
It was the early summer of 1977, two years after the start of the civil war. Fighters from the rebel Palestine Liberation Organisation had taken control in southern Lebanon and the western part of the capital city of Beirut and were fighting against the Lebanese Front. Thousands of civilians fled from the heavily armed militias, among them Eshaya and his family.
Since they were not Lebanese citizens, Lebanese authorities would only issue them a so-called “family travel document,” which on the last page explicitly states: “the document does not certify the nationality of its holders.”
The family arrived by boat on Cyprus and moved on to the Greek harbour of Perama. They were first registered by Greek authorities on July 6, 1977, as noted in their travel document. The photo in the document show Eshaya’s mother Fahime with swept-back black hair. Thomas Eshaya, still a boy of four years, is sitting on her lap with a strand of hair jutting over his forehead. His two older brothers sit nearby in wool sweaters.
“It was the beginning of the 1970s, a different time,” Eshaya recalls. “Refugees were exotic, uncommon. That was lucky for us.”
The family received a tourism visa for a year. And when it ran out, a policeman gave them a tip – go underground in Egaleo, a suburb of Athens.
“Only Iraqis and Lebanese lived there,” Eshaya says. “It was like a ghetto.”
That’s where Eshaya spent his childhood and most of his adult life. Though he always felt Greek, he had to be cautious. “I was afraid of being arrested. I knew there was no one to protect me,” he says.
Eshaya was lucky. With his introduction to Greek life at a young age, he quickly learned how to blend in: he had Greek friends, spoke Greek, acted Greek and to the random stranger there was never a reason to doubt he was Greek. That made it possible for him to hide in plain sight. When someone asked, Eshaya would say that he didn’t have an ID with him – and his friends would provide cover.
“It almost felt normal,” he says about how his family learned to live under the radar. Up to the age of ten, Eshaya only spent a year in school because the family was afraid of authorities. His mother worked in a factory and at 16 Eshaya began to work at the same factory, making tin boxes for a honey distributor.
Still he kept away from big gatherings of people or police. He never even considered travel. The years passed. Employers just looked away when Eshaya explained his situation. Sometimes he was able to work legally – in the 1990s it was possible to get a Greek work permit even without a residence permit. He still had a type of identity card: that Lebanese travel document with the expiration date the Lebanese embassy kept extending.
In the 1990s the situation for migrants became tense in Greece as the war in Yugoslavia sent countless refugees over the border. Then in 1996 the Lebanese embassy refused to continue extending Eshaya’s special travel document and he was for the first time completely without papers.
Only a happy coincidence saved Eshaya. Exactly at this time the Greek government began a program to help migrants without residency permits legalize their status and he started searching for legal advice.
His future attorney, Kalantzi, had been doing pro-bono work for some time when she first met Eshaya. She worked as a business lawyer but kept digging into nationality law – because of its appealing complexity, as she says. With her assistance, he prepared an application for the regularization process. Because he had been living and working for years in Greece, he received a residence permit.
On that basis he was able to apply for a new travel document issued by the Greek authorities. He had an ID again – although inside it still labeled him as “stateless..
“I don’t know what I would have done without Erika, she saved us,” Eshaya says. Kalantzi, who is today known as one of the leading experts on statelessness in Greece, also helped one of his elder brothers that stayed in Athens. She’s become a friend of the family.
“The problem of stateless people in Greece is that there is little knowledge about their situation and problems,” Kalantzi says. “The government and administration sometimes have just been unable to cope with the complexity of the individual cases.”
Nevertheless, she thinks the government is doing its best to help in cases like like Eshaya’s – Kalantzi has managed to help several stateless people achieve legal status over the last few years.
Eshaya still lives in Egaleo on the upper floor of a rowhouse. From the terrace, Athens glitters brightly. The capital city has almost completely enveloped tiny Egaleo.
He glances over the cityscape, over his own small home he and his family so caringly built over the years. “Today I’m free,” Eshaya says. He goes to football games and no longer has to hurry back home when a protest brings the police out. He has also received the visa for Spain and dreams of further trips with his wife and sons.
He still cannot move about as easily as Greeks with full citizenship who can easily travel within European borders, but he has applied to be a naturalized citizen through a special process for stateless people. “When everything goes well, I’ll soon be Greek,” Eshaya says, shrugging. After all the steps he took, all the fears and hardships, it is the last missing piece. “I don’t have to be afraid anymore,” he says.