Fadi Chalouhy arrived at Sydney airport on March 7, 2019 on a Temporary Skill Shortage visa. (ABC Sydney: Harriet Tatham)
For the first 28 years of his life Fadi Chalouhy was stateless.
What it means to be stateless:
- A stateless person is not recognised as a citizen by any country — they do not have a nationality
- There are 3.9 million known stateless people around the world but the UN believes the number could be closer to 10 million
- Stateless people have difficulty accessing basic rights such as education, employment, healthcare and freedom of movement and often face discrimination
Source: Australia for UNCHR
He was born in Lebanon in 1990 to a Lebanese Christian mother and a Syrian Muslim father.
“Back then it was very unusual, especially because we were under the Syrian occupation and there was a lot of turmoil and conflict, especially between the Syrian Muslim occupation and the Lebanese Christian community,” Mr Chalouhy told Cassie McCullagh on ABC Radio Sydney’s Focus program.
Fadi Chalouhy was born to a Lebanese Christian mother and a Syrian Muslim father. (Supplied: Fadi Chalouhy)
Mr Chalouhy’s parents split up about six months after he was born.
His father left, without registering the marriage or Fadi as a child.
“In Lebanon, women aren’t allowed to register their children — only men are,” Mr Chalouhy said.
“All documents related to babies, such as issuing the birth certificate, ID, everything, the father needs to be there to sign the papers.
“And because my father wasn’t, and my mother couldn’t, I was born stateless without any papers and any recognition or any legal status in Lebanon.”
It meant Mr Chalouhy was not a citizen of Lebanon. In fact, he was not a citizen anywhere.
“I ended up in this legal limbo where no country on earth recognised me as a citizen,” Mr Chalouhy said.
“I might as well have been from Mars.”
As a result he suffered discrimination.
“Stateless people in Lebanon are treated worse than animals,” he said.
Fadi Chalouhy’s mother, Hiam, did everything in her power to make sure her son got an education. (Supplied: Fadi Chalouhy)
The challenges of getting an education
Mr Chalouhy’s mother was a janitor at a Catholic school in Lebanon.
She managed to negotiate with the nuns at the school for her son to get an education, but even that was a tricky situation.
“Every time a public inspector would visit the school, I had to stay home,” Mr Chalouhy said.
“Because on paper, that classroom had 20 children. I was child number 21. I was illegal.”
Fadi’s mother negotiated with the nuns at the Catholic school where she worked as a cleaner so that he could attend classes unofficially. (Supplied: Fadi Chalouhy)
Mr Chalouhy said he was bullied in school in Lebanon because of his Syrian heritage.
“There were a lot of comments like ‘Go back where you came from — you’re Syrian’,” he said.
Despite a Christian court in Lebanon ruling he could continue his education and Mr Chalouhy going on to earn a Masters degree, that did not solve his problems with statelessness.
“So my college degree and my high school degree would state: first name Fadi, last name unknown, father’s name unknown, birth date xxxx and that caused me a lot of problems,” he said.
In Lebanon at the time, military roadblocks and police checks were common.
“I used to get pulled over sometimes two or three times a week, because they didn’t know how to deal with me,” he said.
“None of the officers or soldiers on the roadblock were qualified enough or educated enough to deal with a stateless person, because they didn’t know what a stateless person was.”
When Mr Chalouhy’s mother died in 2016, he decided that, although he was born in Lebanon, he did not want to die in Lebanon.
“I realised that we tried everyone — every public figure, every spokesman, every NGO in Lebanon to get Lebanese citizenship and I was never going to get it,” he said.
“So I started looking outside Lebanon.”
Maybe Angelina Jolie can help
Mr Chalouhy began contacting international NGOs and celebrities through their fan pages including UN Ambassador, Angelina Jolie.
He never heard back from her.
“[I’m] still waiting,” he laughed.
The problem was he did not fit neatly into any boxes. He was not a refugee. He had not fled from conflict. He was healthy. He had a job and a roof over his head.
Eventually he came across an NGO called Talent Beyond Boundaries and sent them an email.
“Normally when I approached an NGO in Lebanon, they would ask me: ‘Do you need any financial assistance? Health assistance? Do you have shelter? Do you want some food?’ Because I’m stateless, this is the first thing they think of,” Mr Chalouhy said.
“But I didn’t need any of that.
“I just needed a citizenship or a permanent solution to my problem.”
When Fadi Chalouhy’s mother died, he decided that while he was born in Lebanon, he didn’t want to die in Lebanon. He now lives in Sydney, Australia. (ABC Sydney: Harriet Tatham)
Mr Chalouhy said Talent Beyond Boundaries asked him an unusual question — they asked how he could be an asset to them.
They link talented refugees with international employers and connected Mr Chalouhy to his employer in Sydney — consulting firm Accenture.
Then they had to work out how to get him to Australia.
“How could you get a stateless person who is illegal and has no legal status to legally fly from Beirut to Sydney? This was a puzzle,” he said.
“No stateless person has ever travelled on a Temporary Skill Shortage visa. I am the first.”
He said stateless people usually travelled through resettlement programs with the UN or illegally across borders.
The travel document that ensured Fadi Chalouhy could travel to Australia legally. (Supplied: Fadi Chalouhy)
“It took quite a few brainstorming sessions, but finally the combined efforts of Accenture and Talent Beyond Boundaries managed to get me something called a laissez-passer, which is a Lebanese travel document that allows me to travel,” Mr Chalouhy said.
“It gives me the same travelling authority as a passport but it doesn’t give me a Lebanese citizenship.
“And that’s how I got legally from Beirut to Sydney. But because this was something new, when I was getting my ticket at the airport, it took four or five employees to actually know how to manually enter this file.”
A new life in Australia
Mr Chalouhy is now living and working in Australia on a Temporary Skill Shortage visa, meaning he is no longer stateless but is now a temporary resident.
He prays that one day he will be recognised as a citizen for the first time — an Australian citizen.
“The next step would be to get my permanent residency and after that a citizenship.”
Mr Chalouhy plans to apply for permanent residency in Australia and hopes to one day become an Australian citizen. (ABC Sydney: Harriet Tatham)