Life as a Ghost

Said Alnahawi, 29, Germany

Photos/Videos: Torben Weiß

His father is from Palestine, his mother from Syria – but Said Alnahawi has no nationality whatsoever. Like thousands of ethnic Palestinians around the European Union, he has become a legal ghost. Palestine doesn’t accept him as citizen nor does the country he grew up in – Syria. And Germany doesn’t do a thing to help him out of his despair.

Said Alnahawi holds up his German temporary residence permit; under the section for his nationality it is only marked “XXX.”

Said Alnahawi has been pacing around the German city of Darmstadt almost every day for the last year, trying to think of a way out of his predicament. He has left Syria, a country at war that nobody wants to return to. But Germany, the country he escaped to, doesn’t want him either.

One evening in February 2012, Alnahawi was on his way home in Damascus, Syria riding a bus through the dark streets during a power outage. Soldiers motioned to the bus driver to halt as they approached a checkpoint. They swept through the passengers, checking IDs.

“Then, suddenly I realized we were taking bullets from nowhere,” Alnahawi recalls. “We looked all around but couldn’t make out where they came from. The soldiers had to return fire … I was scared for my life.”

Six months later he was in Germany to get follow up treatment for a chronic birth defect and visit his half-sister when his mother called. Alnahawhi had been to Germany many times before for similar treatment, but this time was different.

“Don’t come back. It’s too dangerous,” Alnahawi’s mother said. Alnawhi thought back to the shooting incident. He knew his mother was right.

Alnahawi overstayed on his visa and soon he was on German authorities’ radar for deportation, but where to?

When his tourist visa ran out in March 2013, Alnahawi decided to stay in Germany. Unsure of what to do with him, officials suspended deportation for six months. That’s when Alnahawi started pacing through the city center every day, moving through the shadows of buildings as his case slowly moved through the legal system.

Alnahawi was soon on German authorities’ radar for deportation, but as he and immigration officers learned, there was no state to return him to.

Growing up, Alnahawi says, he never really had any problems. But he was never Syrian. Syria only recognizes citizenship from a subject’s paternal side; Alnahawi was born to a Syrian mother and a Palestinian father, making him Palestinian in the government’s eyes. He was registered as a Palestinian refugee in Syria and issued special refugee status. When he arrived in Germany, however, he realized that the fact that he was ethnic Palestinian – a country largely unrecognized by world governments – made him stateless.

A fact unknown to Alnahawi at this point: Stateless people are granted special rights in Germany. The country has acceded to two UN conventions on statelessness which guarantee people with no citizenship a pathway to legalization. The state however has put the burden of proof on the immigrants – apparently to avoid fraudulent claims of stateless status. In Said’s case, the immigration authorities decided not to decide directly – and put the administrative term “undecided nationality” in his papers.

He’s never been to Palestine, let alone gotten a passport or even known how to get one. No one knows how to classify him.

Said feels that his life in Germany is on hold while his legal status is clarified.

Even though Germany has agreed to a UN convention regarding the reduction of statelessness, there are more than 11,000 stateless people in Germany and more than 30,000 with undetermined nationality.

“I‘ve always felt like a Syrian,” Alnahawi says while shaking his head. But he’s not one.

“I grew up in Damascus, I am Syrian. I speak Arabic with a Syrian dialect,” Alnahawi says, “for me the term stateless just means helpless.”

There are an estimated 100,000 Palestinians living in the European Union, according to the European Commission. Some Palestinians manage to get legal status, but many others roam around quasi-legally for years. Because of Palestine’s disputed status, even proof of Palestinian residency or a passport doesn’t help; not that this would have applied to Alnahawi, who has neither. Alnahawi presents a special challenge to Germany, caught between the non-choices of deportation to an active war zone and the legal gumbo of the disputed status of Palestine. German attorney Thomas Oberhäuser believes there may be hope for people like him yet. He points out that Germany has implemented the two key UN conventions on statelessness.

Alnawhi could go through an onerous legal process to prove that no state will accept him as a citizen, which might give him a claim to German residency, but that, according to Oberhäuser could take months or years. Germany is not one of the eight European Union countries that have a streamlined “statelessness determination procedure” that can help decide such cases quickly.

With the aid of Amnesty International, Alnahawi has received a one year residence permit to continue with his studies in Germany while he waits for a resolution.

He dreams of permanent residency, and maybe even getting a German passport one day. But when it comes to his nationality, officials still haven’t made a decision. So for now, he paces the city and waits in Germany’s legal limbo, with nowhere to go.

His ID card says his nationality is “XXX.” Alnawhi is like a ghost.