Lebanon, and its capital Beirut, are often represented by the media as islands of freedom in the Middle East. The well-heeled neighborhoods of Achrafieh and Downtown are reminiscent of a Parisian boutique; while nightlife in Gemmayze and Hamra could compete with the scene in Berlin. But, behind the glossy images of ultra-futuristic skyscrapers and flawless female bodies, Lebanon is a country where women are not allowed to pass citizenship on to their children, or to their non-Lebanese husbands.
The consequence of this lack of legal status is a lack of social rights. The children of a Lebanese woman who is married to a non-Lebanese man are not legally considered Lebanese citizens, even if they were born and raised in Lebanon. They are al-Maktum Qaid, or "stateless.” Being a Palestinian refugee, or a descendant of those who rejected the Lebanese citizenship during the last census in 1932 to avoid military service (when Lebanon was still under French mandate), is another way people acquire the status of al-Maktum Qaid. The stateless do not have passports, do not have access to public health care, cannot attend public schools, and cannot own private property. Marriage and travel also become difficult or impossible. Furthermore, children excluded from nationality rights can be denied residency and deported, thus breaking apart families.
In this photo essay, I documented the stories of a number of families struggling with the problem of being stateless.
Karim is nine years old. Every three years he has to renew his resident visa to remain in Lebanon. He must study at a private school, since he is not allowed to attend public school. He says he would like to become a doctor to help his mother, Nadia, who is paying for his education. His father, who is also stateless and is of Kurdish origin, was born in Lebanon fifty-five years ago.
Ibrahim lives with his mother in the Beqa‘ valley. He never knew his Syrian father because he left the family and never returned home. “I did not grow up with my real father,” he says. “My brothers and I can not even go to Syria because when we were born there was not enough money to register births, marriages and deaths.” Ibrahim went to school for only four years. He was engaged once, but she left him because of his social condition.
Moustafa is the founder of the independent movement “Individual Association of Human Rights.” He is stateless, married and father of three children, who are therefore also stateless. “I started this campaign alone, without money, more or less two years ago,” he explains. “I suffered a lot for my condition. Today we need to be united because the inability to extend the nationality denies not only women their full rights as nationals, but also denies her children their basic rights as human beings.”
This is what happened to Youssef: he is Palestinian, married to Nada, and they have three children. He and his wife are engineers, they work together, they have a studio, but officially he is her employee. The family house, cars, and properties belong to Nada because Youssef is not allowed to own anything. “Before opening the studio with Nada, I was project manager and I had twelve engineers under me,” Youssef says. “No one knew my origins, otherwise I would have been forced to leave the job. Our children understand the restrictions, and when they get married, we will be careful to choose the ‘right’ person.”
In addition to al-Maktum Qaid, where fathers are stateless and so no nationality may be passed on to the children, there are also cases of women married to non-Lebanese, whose children can only acquire their father’s nationality. The story of Samira is well known in Lebanon. She was married to an Egyptian man who passed away in 1994. She has five children. None are studying at university because education for non-Lebanese is very expensive. In 2009, for the first time in Lebanon, Judge John Azzi granted citizenship to her children, but two days later the government intervened and quashed the decision. Azzi, who was Head of the Court, lost his office and became a lawyer.
Not only do women pay the consequences of this law; the entire family and society as a whole do, too. The government has refused to discuss the law, which dates back to 1925. Perhaps this is because a change in numerical terms by one group over another would result in a shift in political representation, and therefore the balance of power within the government. In addition, granting women the right to pass on citizenship would lead to an increase in the number of Muslims and open the doors to Palestinian refugees, thus upsetting the current status quo. Unofficial estimates speak of 35,000 women married to foreigners, and a number of stateless that exceeds 100,000 out of a population of almost four million.