Motaz Alhelou is a man without a country.
Born and raised in Gaza, the 30-year-old Palestinian was forced to flee his homeland after deserting and defying Hamas, the militant group in power.
Alhelou was conscripted into the group when he was 17 years old. He spent years planning his escape, but Hamas was on to him.
In 2018, members of Hamas kidnapped Alhelou, handcuffed him and put a bag over his head. They forced him to sit in a chair meant for torture for several hours. They beat him, sometimes with a pipe and other times with fists straight into his chest and stomach. They called him a traitor for deserting. At one point, they burned his hand. They tortured him for four days straight.
Alhelou fled Gaza after his release and was denied refugee status in multiple other countries before arriving in the United States in December 2021. The U.S. denied him asylum and has instead held him in detention. Alhelou is stateless, and no country will take him in.
Many people in the U.S. know about migrants and refugees generally, but not about the specific plight of stateless people living in their country. Yet there are more than 200,000 of them across America, according to a report published in November by the University of Chicago Law School. The actual number is likely considerably greater because stateless people are often invisible due to a lack of documentation.
This also means they can’t legally work, open bank accounts, enroll in school or higher education, get health care or visit friends and family abroad.
For people like Alhelou, being stateless can mean being held arbitrarily in immigration detention — in his case, without an end date in sight.
“The system is harsh to the global south and moreso to stateless people because if they don’t win their asylum cases, they risk long-term imprisonment while U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement drags its feet to find another country to deport them [to],” said Ramsey Judah, Alhelou’s lawyer.
ICE did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Alhelou was 14 years old when Hamas took over Gaza. The militant group swiftly established its own governance, including mandating conscription. Hamas required every family to send a male member to train with the group or face dire consequences — including death.
And so Alhelou felt like he didn’t have a choice when he was forced to join Hamas in 2010. He could recall what had happened to a man who had refused to send his only son to the group: His body turned up on the streets weeks later. He had clearly been tortured.
Alhelou was with Hamas from 2010 to 2015 and was trained as a soldier, teacher and station guard. He avoided reporting for training whenever he could, making excuses that he had to be home. He felt helpless and constantly looked to escape.
In 2015, Alhelou negotiated with Hamas leaders to take a leave of absence so he could finish his law degree. He tried to leave for Turkey, but Hamas caught wind of his plans and caught him. They ripped up his passport and threatened him if he attempted to leave again. For years, he found excuses to avoid the group. During this time, members of Hamas visited his home and interrogated his family about his whereabouts.
After his kidnapping and days of torture in 2018, Alhelou knew wasn’t safe in Gaza and set out to find a new home.
“My dreams were shattered when I entered the walls of this prison. Or rather, when I entered America, because I haven’t seen anything from this country but prison.”
There were at least 4.3 million stateless people in the world as of 2021, according to an official estimate by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, with 79% of these individuals living in just six countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Latvia and Syria. However, the UNHCR acknowledges that the actual number of stateless people globally is more likely to be about 10 million.
Migrants and refugees are at a greater risk of statelessness. People escaping conflict may lose or not be able to bring citizenship documents with them. Their children are also at risk of statelessness if they can’t prove their nationality.
Alhelou has a Palestinian passport, which he was able to replace after Hamas ruined the one he had previously. Still, the U.S. does not accept Palestinian passports as proof of citizenship or nationality, and finding a country to accept him has proved nearly impossible.
He first fled to Turkey on a tourist visa, where he lived for two years, and was denied refugee status because the country’s quota was filled. He started a business there and made friends. But one day, in December 2020, he received a text message that noted his location in Turkey, which he said likely came from Hamas sympathizers. Someone broke into his apartment. Terrified, he immediately packed and traveled to Bolivia, one of the few countries that kept its borders open during the pandemic and would accept Alhelou’s passport.
When his visa ran out and he could no longer live in Bolivia, Alhelou traveled to Argentina. He applied for refugee status but was told it could take years to process his application. Mexico granted him residency but not refugee status. Feeling hopeless, Alhelou read up on how to lawfully enter the U.S., hoping to maximize his chances for asylum. On Dec. 4, 2021, he presented himself at the Otay Mesa port of entry in San Diego, California, telling immigration officials he was afraid to return to Palestine. Shortly thereafter, he was interviewed and granted a positive credible fear determination — meaning an asylum officer believed that he had a well-founded fear of persecution in his legal pursuit for asylum.
Members of the local Palestinian community in California wrote to immigration officials, offering sponsorship and financial assistance and vouching for Alhelou’s character.
But the U.S. denied Alhelou asylum — or any form of immigration relief — due to his involvement with Hamas. In August, he was ordered to be removed from the U.S.
“My dreams were shattered when I entered the walls of this prison,” Alhelou said. “Or rather, when I entered America, because I haven’t seen anything from this country but prison.”
The U.S. has not signed or ratified either of the two international treaties that specifically protect the rights of stateless people: the 1954 Convention on the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.
However, the United States may still be obligated to protect the rights of stateless people to nationality under other international laws, including the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “[e]veryone has the right to a nationality” and that “[n]o one shall be arbitrarily deprived of [their] nationality nor denied the right to change [their] nationality.”
And although the U.S. has acknowledged the problems stateless people face in America, the University of Chicago report notes that none of the three branches of the U.S. government has yet to take any action to help them.
For instance, the Department of Homeland Security announced in December 2021 that it intended to formally recognize and accept a definition of statelessness, but it has yet to lay out any formal plans to do so.
“We have not seen much action to follow through on the [DHS] commitment,” said Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough, executive director of United Stateless, an organization that advocates for the rights of stateless people.
Ambartsoumian-Clough said her organization is working with members of Congress — which hasn’t passed legislation addressing statelessness since 1940 — to introduce the Stateless Protection Act, which would legally define a “stateless person” and provide them with protective status and a path to citizenship.
Alhelou said he has fully cooperated with the removal proceedings and applied for voluntary deportation, but there are no countries for him to be removed to.
The government of Israel, which decides whether to accept Palestinian deportees, has refused to accept Alhelou, according to his lawyer. He then requested to be deported to Brazil because of the growing Palestinian community there, but the Brazilian government under now-former President Jair Bolsonaro denied that request.
“All I dreamed of was stability and to stop searching for a safe country that would protect me. I was searching for a country that would grant me protection so that I could enjoy my right to move freely, which is guaranteed by international law as a basic right for every human being,” Alhelou said. “But I didn’t realize that this right was only written in the books that I’ve studied in university and I’d never be granted it.”
In detention, Alhelou’s condition is only worsening. In April, a psychotherapist diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, and general anxiety disorder stemming from the torture that he suffered. The prolonged isolation and the language barrier — he has no reading materials or people to speak to in Arabic — caused him to fall into depressive episodes and even have thoughts of suicide, according to documents his lawyer submitted to ICE.
“I was taught the meaning of war when I was 8 years old,” Alhelou said. “I still hear the bombs and explosions. I haven’t forgotten them.”
Alhelou is also in physical pain. He had to have two teeth removed after being put on a waitlist to receive dental care and said he still needs further treatment. He has gone on a hunger strike four times, which he said has led to gastrointestinal issues.
For now, his search for a country to accept him continues. He’s worried he’ll be trapped in a U.S. detention center forever.
“Everyone says that America is a country of law and justice. Where is the law and where is the justice in this?” he asked. “Will I spend the rest of my life in prison just because I applied for asylum in your country?”