I was a regular kid, except for one thing – I was a citizen of nowhere

A terrifying childhood experience at the US border exposed me to the realities of being stateless.

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On 12 December 1994, I was born. Born without a country – considered by the United Nations to be legally stateless.

I gained this status due to unfortunate circumstances. In the 1980s, my Somali parents were approaching the peak of their lives. My dad was a civil engineer and had started a business in Mogadishu, while my mum was training to be a nurse. This all changed in 1991, when the Somali civil war broke out.

My dad was stubborn and did not want to leave the life he had created, but was persuaded by my mum when the gunfire reached their neighbourhood. Their plan was to reach the port and then take a boat to the Kenyan city of Mombasa. Along the way my mum and dad were separated. My mother managed to make it to the port and – despite her boat sinking – was able to make it to Mombasa. My dad, however, went missing for three months, but was finally reunited with my mum. He never told me what happened during those months, but I later learned that he was tortured and suffered severe hearing loss.

And so I was born in Kenya. Our life there was precarious, and our future uncertain. My status only complicated our situation; I had no passport and no citizenship, which meant many countries would not even consider our applications. But this changed in 1997, when Canada implemented a special undocumented class of refugees. And in February of 1997, we gained asylum there.

The Canadian government assigned us to Edmonton, Alberta – a northern city in western Canada. We arrived in the dead of winter. It was my first time seeing snow. In fact, my sister convinced me that snow was sugar, so I placed a bunch of it in my backpack, which obviously later melted.

This was my introduction to Canada. Being young, I did not know that I was different. I felt like any other Canadian kid. I learned how to skate – badly. I had snowball fights, and would proudly defend poutine as a Canadian cuisine. This mindset only changed when I joined a youth military programme called Air Cadets. It was a free programme that kept me busy while my parents were working. Since their education was not recognised, my dad worked in a meat packing plant while my mum worked as a janitor.

I quickly rose up through the ranks and was tasked with teaching classes to younger cadets. It was surreal, because I was teaching young cadets about citizenship when I wasn’t a citizen of anywhere.

I became hyper aware of being different when our squadron planned a trip to Cape Canaveral, Florida, to learn about the space industry and see the Space Shuttle and the launch site where Apollo 11 had left the Earth. As a kid who was extremely interested in space (my most prized possession was a photo of me back-to-back with Canadian astronaut and international space station commander, Chris Hadfield), this was a once in a lifetime experience.

Yet this is when I learned that travel was difficult. I wasn’t qualified for any passport and instead had to beg the Canadian government for a refugee travel document. The relevant department sent me one at the last minute, and said I wouldn’t need a visa since it had been issued by Canada.

When I arrived at the border, however, I was immediately pulled aside and questioned by an immigration official immediately. He put me in a room by myself. I was still a kid. I was scared. They asked why I wanted to go to the US and said that the Canadian government had been wrong and that they were allowed to detain me. The officer then told me I was not allowed entry.

It was then that Captain Johnson, a Canadian Military Officer and our trip leader, stormed into the room. She yelled at the immigration officer and defended me – this was amazing to see as someone without rights. The US officer then said I could enter but only if I paid a $500 fine. Without hesitation, Captain Johnson placed her credit card on the table.

This experience exposed me to the realities of being stateless. I was alone and at the will of whatever country I happened to be in. This only changed when I received my citizenship in January 2011. It was a weird feeling, you know? Walking into a room belonging nowhere, and walking out belonging to the country I grew up in.

Since then I have graduated from the University of Alberta and now work in education. In my free time, I enjoy researching my provinces’ history and volunteering with the Somali community. I feel that it’s important I give back.

My story is not isolated. There are ten million stateless people in the world right now. They are among the most vulnerable people on the planet. It’s important we don’t forget them, and consider what role we can play in helping them find a place to belong.