Miliyon was stripped of his Ethiopian citizenship after protesting his father’s deportation to Eritrea. He decided to flee to the United States, leaving his family behind. The U.S. was supposed to be his safe haven, but soon he realized that it was anything but.
When Miliyon paid a smuggler to bring him from Ethiopia to the United States using a fake passport, he thought he was leaving danger for a life in a better place. Instead he entered a life of extreme hardship.
Despite being stripped of his Ethiopian citizenship because of his Eritrean ethnicity and political activity in Ethiopia, the 41-year-old, who lives in Maryland in a small community near Washington DC, has seen his application for asylum denied and has since entered a world of limbo. He lives in a local flophouse and works 80 hour weeks at a local gas station in order to barely make ends meet, but he has no work permit and no way to receive one.
Nobody knows exactly how many people in Miliyon’s situation exist in the United States. Following wars in Eritrea and Ethiopia in the late 1990s, Eritrea expelled and stripped thousands of its citizens of Ethiopian origin of their citizenship. Ethiopia did the same. Experts say that some people like Miliyon have found out about the true depth of their situation only after checking in with embassies while working abroad. They are permanently stateless.
Miliyon and his small team of attorneys at Washington and Lee University think that the only way for Miliyon to get legal work permission would be for him to be detained by by the Department of Homeland Security. Under U.S. law he’d have to be released within six months when officials realize they can’t deport him anywhere. But that would also mean Miliyon loses his job, his place to live and everything he has.
I’m afraid of that,” Miliyon says. “But I’m also exhausted – I’m just so tired right now.”
In the meantime Miliyon dreams of a country to call his own. But it seems impossible. The Ethiopian government deported Miliyon’s father, a former Ethiopian government official, to Eritrea after conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea broke out in the late 1990s. When Miliyon protested the move, he says security officials detained and beat him before stripping his citizenship. His mother urged him to leave and set him up with a smuggler and and fake Ethiopian travel documents, which he used to get a U.S. visa. He arrived at Washington Dulles airport and was let into the country.
But now Miliyon wishes he had his old life back. Ethiopian embassy officials have told him that they no longer recognize him as an Ethiopian national. The Eritrean government says he can’t prove a connection to the country. He’s stuck here.
Over the last few years, Miliyon’s father died of illness in Ethiopia and his brother killed himself. Miliyon still tries to support his mother in Ethiopia, while struggling to make ends meet. But he knows he’ll never see her again. Miliyon can’t get a travel document and can’t ever leave the country.
Most days, Miliyon comes home from gas station attendant job and collapses onto the sofa. He leafs through his immigration documents: reams and reams of petitions, appeals and rejections. He tries to avoid thinking of what immigration detention might be like. Like many stateless people, he knows it’s a matter of time before federal authorities come for him.