A Foreigner in My Own Country

Image from Yekiti Media website

From the Damascus Bureau: Real news and stories from Syria

21 June 2010 – By a Syrian Stateless Kurd

It was supposed to be one of the happiest nights of my life. One evening, my wife and I left our hometown in north-eastern Syria heading towards the historical city of Aleppo. It was just three days after our wedding night. We were eager to enjoy our honeymoon in that magnificent city.

But an unforeseen event quickly dampened our enthusiasm. The first hotel we sought refused to let us spend the night. We tried a second and a third one. The answer, however, was always the same, “We regret. The hotel cannot accommodate you because you do not hold a Syrian citizenship.”

I believe I should be considered Syrian. I was born in Syria. So were my parents. It is the only country I have known my entire life. Yet, the authorities here label me a foreigner. And so, as a stateless foreigner residing in Syria, I am not allowed to sleep in hotels, I am not allowed to hold a position in the public sector, I am not allowed to own property, and the list of injustices goes on and on.

Strangely enough, although I am recognised as a foreigner, I cannot even leave the country. Officials refuse to issue passports to stateless people like me.

An estimated 300,000 Syrian Kurds are today in the same situation. Our tragedy originates in an unlawful measure taken by Syrian authorities back in 1962. Back then, the government conducted a special census in the province of al-Hasakeh in northeast Syria on the pretext that many non-Syrian Kurds had come illegally from neighbouring Turkey.

According to a detailed report on Kurds released last year by the New York-based Human Rights Watch, Kurds then had to prove that they had lived in Syria since at least 1945 or lose their citizenship. The government carried out the census in one day, and failed to give the population sufficient notice or information about the process, the report said.

As a result, the authorities revoked the citizenships of some 120,000 Kurds, mostly poor peasants, leaving them stateless and facing difficulties of all sorts, from getting jobs to obtaining state services, the report concluded. Since the 1960s, the number of Kurds deprived of their Syrian nationality had grown significantly because the children of those stateless men who married were also considered stateless. Kurds constitute roughly ten per cent of the Syrian population, which is around 20 million. They mostly live in the north and east of the country.

After roaming the streets of Aleppo with our luggage and resting occasionally in parks,, my wife and I drove towards the coast to look for a refuge there. But our attempts to find a lodging all failed and we ended up returning home feeling dispirited and hapless.

Stateless people like me carry a special identification card. It says blatantly that we are classified as foreigners. Our misfortunes start from a tender age. Our parents have to go through a long list of bureaucratic procedures to register us in schools. They even need to get the approval of the security services for us to become pupils.

Once at school, we are discriminated against. I remember how we were ordered to do cleaning tasks while other children attended the meetings and activities of the official youth organisation.When I think that I have brought a child into this world knowing that they will suffer like I did, I sometimes feel ashamed of myself.

Many of us manage to go to universities and graduate with honours degrees but our professional future is always destined to be bleak. Stateless people are denied the right to become members of unions. So they cannot enter professions such as medicine, law or engineering.

One of my stateless friends studied law hoping that one day this injustice would be lifted. He now sells stationery because he was not permitted to join the Bar and become a lawyer. Another friend who studied economics is a street vendor selling socks. And another, with a degree in philosophy, washes dishes.

Cases like these are numerous, drawing an ironic response from our community. The stateless commonly say it is better to be educated and jobless person rather than illiterate and out of work.

Sometimes, we have a faint hope that we will be given back our right to hold the Syrian citizenship. In 2002, the Syrian president Bashar al-Asaad came to Hasakeh province to voice his support for the Kurdish people as full Syrian citizens. He said that the 1962 census was a mistake and vowed to correct it.

This promise was never fulfilled. Meanwhile, there will be ever more stories of shattered professional dreams; of the sick who were not allowed to travel for treatment abroad; and of youths whose only hope is to board a plane.

The identity of the author has been protected for security reasons.

Original posting from the Damascus Bureau and can be found here.

More information about Kurds in Syria can be found here and here.

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2 thoughts on “A Foreigner in My Own Country

  1. In fact I feel that the presidential promises have left many Syrian citizens with the feeling that the problem of stateless Kurds has been solved, or that progress is well underway.

    Possible reasons for this are that many non-Kurds are unfamiliar with the reality of the Kurdish people in Syria as:

    1. There is little independent press and few dare to talk about this issue.
    2. Society is divided between Kurds and Arabs and often Arabs fear that having Kurdish friends will be ‘dangerous’ from them and their family.
    3. Many of the stateless Kurds are restricted to their villages (as they may be unable to travel outside the local province) so never come into contact with those from other parts of the country.

    As a result, the President’s comments and promises are one of the only references a lot of people have and are consequently taken all too lightly. The international press therefore has a responsibility to hold al-Assad accountable for the promises he has made to the stateless peoples of Syria over the years.

  2. Dear Taghee,
    You make some good points. You’re absolutely correct in pointing out that the international press needs to speak up more about the situation of the Kurds in Syria. best, KB

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