Majd Khalifeh in Jaffa during his first visit to Palestine in 2011. Photo by Xander Stockmans.
Worldwide about 12 million people are stateless. They are not officially recognized as citizens by any country and therefore do not have a nationality or passport, but own laissez-passé documents. One-third of these stateless people are Palestinian, rendering them the largest stateless community in the world. Majd Khalifeh used to be one of them. Since May 2013, Majd can call himself a Belgian citizen, but for the first 29 years of his life, he was a stateless Palestinian.
Majd’s roots lie in the area around Haifa, from where his family was driven away during the Nakba in 1948. A few decades later, Majd was born as a refugee in Dubai, where he was recognized as a Palestinian, yet was not entitled to citizenship according to the laws of the United Arab Emirates. Since his grandparents had fled to Syria from Palestine, he received a laissez-passé issued by Syria and was registered by UNRWA as a member of the Palestinian refugee family. Majd grew up in the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait and Tunisia. In 2004, he moved to Belgium to study and work and in 2011 he was able to visit Palestine for the first time.
The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, defines stateless people as individuals who are not considered a national by any state. This bond between an individual and a state comes with certain obligations, but also ensures the individual state protection and a legal basis to exercise his civil and political rights. Having a nationality is thus essential to fully participate in any society. Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to a nationality” and that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality.”
Did your status of stateless person ever cause you any problems?
“Whenever I had to fill in my nationality, it would cause problems. Just imagine enrolling as a stateless person at the university, singing up at the bank, taking out insurance, going through airports, visiting embassies and applying for visas, online services…”
You lived in the United Arab Emirates, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Tunisia and Belgium. Did you experience any differences in being stateless in the Arab world and in Europe?
“Since these Arab countries don’t recognize Israel, I was automatically registered as a Palestinian. In Syria, I enjoyed nearly all of the same rights and duties as a Syrian citizen, except for the right to citizenship. It felt like I was going through life as a Palestinian in these countries. The term “stateless” didn’t appear on my official documents, unlike in Belgium.”
In Belgium, you were given residency rights. Was it difficult to obtain this?
“All kinds of residency permits, especially for an indefinite period, are hard to obtain in the EU. I had to go through many different procedures. Step one was to be recognized as a stateless person by the court, which took a few years. Afterwards, I had to file an application for regularization and wait for another few years until I finally received a positive reply by the immigration service. In total, obtaining residency rights took me seven years. The last step was filing a request for naturalization to obtain Belgian citizenship.”
What was the procedure to obtain Belgian citizenship like?
“It was a lot easier compared to obtaining residency rights. I had to prove that I was integrated and had residency rights. After two and a half years of waiting, I finally got the good news in May.”
In the Fall of 2011, you were able to travel to Palestine for the first time. How did you achieve this?
“It felt like a mission impossible with my Palestinian roots and a stateless travel document. I was interrogated three times at the Israeli embassy in Belgium and body-searched by the police on my first visit. Eventually they granted me the tourist visa because I was officially recognized as a stateless person, had never been to Palestine and was carrying an invitation of a Palestinian NGO. As far as I know, I was the first stateless Palestinian who was able to obtain a tourist visa.”
“When we arrived in Tel Aviv, all of these efforts seemed to have been a waste of time. I was immediately detained at the airport together with a group of activists and thought that I would be sent back to Belgium, yet two hours later I was admitted to the country. It was one of the happiest moments in my life: visiting my country for the first time.”
What was it like for you to be on Palestinian soil for the first time?
“It was magnificent and heartbreaking at the same time. It was very difficult for me to see that Haifa, where my grandparents are from, is now officially an Israeli city. But in my heart, without wanting to sound like a political activist, it is still historic Palestine. I was the happiest man on earth because I could finally breathe in the Palestinian air, eat Palestinian food, talk to the people, see the sea and get to know my family.”
Was Palestine what you had expected?
“I wasn’t really expecting anything actually. I looked at it as an adventure and allowed the many surprises that came my way to guide me. Every moment I spent there was part of a dream coming true. Everything was beautiful: the sea, the mountains, the olive trees, the people, the Jews, the Muslims, the Christians, the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Wailing Wall, the Nativity Church… everything.”
Did your visit change your attitude towards Israel-Palestine in any way?
“I’ve never had much faith in politicians, both Palestinian and Israeli, and in their will to find a real solution through negotiations. Visiting the region hasn’t changed that. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by Sadaka-Reut: a group of Israeli and Palestinian youth who work on ideas for peace and a better society together. Their love and respect for each other moved me. I really appreciated how they look at each other as human beings and not as enemies, which is something you will never see on television. The few days I spent volunteering with them, turned out to be some of the best moments I experienced in Israel-Palestine. I was in peace.”
“Being stateless for the most part of my life has taught me how to exceed the concept of borders and nationalities and to get to know people as individuals. My hope for the future is that the occupation ends and the borders are opened, and that people can get to know each other.”
Majd’s search for his roots in Palestine was turned into a documentary called Stateless, by Senne Dehandschutter. The documentary shows Majd’s search for his family’s house and the cinema that was run by his grandfather. Majd’s visit to Palestine was part of a bigger project called Tussen Vrijheid en Geluk (Between Happiness and Freedom) in which Belgian journalist,Pieter Stockmans, and photographer,Xander Stockmans, try to cover the hopes, fears and expectations of people behind the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa.