Sometimes, when I open my mouth, people ask me where I am from. My thick accent always gives me away. Where are you from? Everybody takes an answer for granted. By definition you, me, everybody has to be from somewhere, right?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, homeland is defined as a state or area set aside to be a state for a people of a particular national, cultural, or racial origin. Motherland is included as one of its six synonyms, and I prefer it to the others for its implicit feminine meaning.
Eloisa Castro did not have a motherland. Not a national flag to call hers. She thinks she was born in Honduras, but does not have a birth certificate to prove it. She does not know her parent’s names, but was told her surname was Castro. As a child, she was brought to Costa Rica, along with a group of children during the 1950’s. One of the few things she clearly remembers as a child was when she was left behind.
Homelessness was her home. Eventually, a police officer became her boyfriend, and she got pregnant. A sweet lady “adopted” her, and allowed Eloisa to live with her. She had two children with that police officer, who did not recognize the children as his.
Eloisa moved away with her two children, and she met a man, who will become the father of her four other children. Both wanted to marry, but without a birth certificate, or an I.D. document, she could not do it. People from nowhere do not have that right, among others. She also was a victim of domestic violence, but she never dared to call the police. Eventually he left her and her children.
Being a single mother of five became too much and, because of her depression, Eloisa ended up in a hospital. During that time, her children were sent to an orphanage because their mother could not prove who she was. Once she was released from the hospital, Eloisa could only visit her children secretly, and only when the moon was blue. Five years later the children’s father came back, and Eloisa finally was able to get her children back. Then, she got pregnant one more time. Although Eloisa suffers from diabetes, for many years public and private hospitals in Costa Rica denied their services to her because she did not possess an I.D.
In international law, a stateless person is someone who is “not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law”. On 12 November 2018, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned there are about 12 million stateless people in the world.
That same year, Costa Rica became the first country in Latin America to grant nationality to a stateless person. There are other Latin American countries, such Brazil and Uruguay, with legislation, which allows declaring someone as stateless. Nevertheless, granting nationality was something no Latin American country had done before. Costa Rica had already signed two treaties related to statelessness during the 70’s. However, their dispositions had not been complied with until then.
After being officially recognized as a stateless individual by the Ministry of Foreign and Religious Affairs, Eloisa was given a Costa Rican I.D. in June of 2018, which allows her to vote, to access medical services and public benefits, and grants all the rights a Costa Rican citizen has. She now can have a house under her name, which has been her second biggest dream. By then, Eloisa was 69 years old, and she finally was no longer from nowhere.
The Ngäbe-Buglé community, an indigenous group in Central America, knows very well what their motherland is. Unfortunately, for hundreds of years cartographers persistently drew a border in the middle of it. When the Ngäbe-Buglé move between Costa Rica and Panama in search for work as migrant coffee pickers, they do not see any boundaries along the rivers or mountains. Some of them have never registered their birth in either country, and as such, they are at risk of statelessness.
Teresa, a member of this community, was one of those migrant coffee pickers. She could also be considered from nowhere. She had been living in Costa Rica since she was 14, although she had been born in Panama. However, her birth was never registered there. When she was two months pregnant, she started feeling weaker and weaker. Then, it was found that she had had undiagnosed leukaemia, and her life was in danger. Because she was lacking proper documentation from Costa Rica, she was unable to receive the proper medical care she required.
The “Chiriticos Project” as it has been known, came to Teresa’s help. They determined that Teresa needed first to have her Panamanian nationality verified. Once the documentation was obtained, she was granted permanent residency status in Costa Rica, and was able to be enrolled in the national healthcare system.
The program has been made possible thanks to the collaboration of the Civil Registry Offices from Costa Rica and Panama, and supported by the UNHCR, the Refugee Agency for the United Nations. The term Chiriticos was a neologism made from Chiriquí (a province in western Panamá bordering Costa Rica), and Tico (an idiomatic term used for a native of Costa Rica).
Since its beginnings in 2014, project workers have contacted more than 19,370 people. While most were found to have Panamanian or Costa Rican citizenship, they identified and assisted more than 3,600 individuals at risk of statelessness because they were not registered in either country.
Thanks to the Chiriticos Project Teresa got a bone-narrow transplant, as well as chemotherapy. She is now at her home with her four-year old son. And she was also no longer from nowhere.
If a child like Eloisa had been in the United States, and due to her condition, she may had been eligible for what is called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, also known as SIJS (Special Immigrant Juvenile Status). This is a classification, which offers some immigration protections for minors, if they have been abused, abandoned or neglected by a parent. If granted, it may qualify the juvenile applicant for lawful permanent residency. Gulfcoast Legal Services has been successful in applying for SIJ status for juveniles who have been determined to be victims of human trafficking. The Gulfcoast Legal Services Birth Certificate Program would have been able to help a person like Teresa, if she had been living in Pinellas County. If you would like to know more about this program, you can go here: https://gulfcoastlegal.org/blog/gls-birth-certificate-program-helps-hundreds-gain-access-to-services.
 “Homeland”, Merriam-Webster. Accessed June 17, 2020, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/homeland.
 “Synonyms for homeland”, Merriam-Webster. Accessed June 17, 2020, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/homeland#synonyms.
 About a quarter of a million Ngäbe-Buglé members live in northwest Panama, of whom an estimated 15,000 cross the border informally to work during the coffee harvest in southern Costa Rica. “Registration drive brings indigenous families out of the shadows”. UNHCR News. Accessed July 2, 2020, http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/news/stories/2018/1/5a4ce1c04/registration-drive-brings-indigenous-families-shadows.html.