“Please, please stop!” I screamed, crouching in the corner of my bedroom. It was 3 in the morning, but part of me hoped that my muffled cries would send alarm throughout my cramped New York City apartment building, though I would have been humiliated if anyone saw me in this state. I felt the cold wooden floor under my feet — the only indication that there was anything supporting me. The days and weeks had culminated in this single moment where I couldn’t take it anymore.
Every day for years, I’d been plagued with the uncertainty. The same question haunted me day and night, a repetition so insidious that it somehow felt like two different questions: “What will happen to me? What will happen to me?” I covered my ears to try to stop my mind from chattering. Not knowing was excruciating, and there was no one who could offer answers.
Ten years earlier, in 2006, I’d been labeled stateless and undocumented. Now, five years later, I have found myself in the same agony once again. But this time, there are many others who have joined me. Today, our pain is linked to Covid-19. When I look back on the seven years I spent in deportation proceedings, I am still not sure who I thought would stop my pain.
I was born in Zambia, to parents who came from Democratic Republic of Congo. At the age of 4, I immigrated to the United States with my mom, but she died when I was 15, leaving me an orphan. My American-born stepfather, a citizen, had died three years earlier. Unbeknownst to me, I had overstayed my visa, which made me undocumented. And now that both my parents were gone, I’d lost all paths to citizenship.
Like the 250,000 stateless people in the United States and the 12 million globally, I didn’t have a home anywhere in the world. It was worse than being undocumented or homeless, being stateless was like being trapped in a nightmare with no way out. I had no legal recourse. In the eyes of the law, people like me simply didn’t exist.
For seven agonizing years beginning around September 11, 2001, I had monthly hearings before an immigration judge in Buffalo who had a terrible reputation for terrorizing illegal immigrants, represented by an immigration lawyer who committed malpractice on my case.
My nightmare, documented in my memoir, Illegal Among Us, lasted only seven years. For countless stateless persons and undocumented immigrants, their journeys can last twenty years or more. There are cases like the 80-year-old woman I met from Eastern Europe who has been stateless all her life. Her sorrow is so deep that it can be mistaken for the creases on her face. When I speak to my friends and former colleagues, I hear a twinge in their voice. It’s the need for further reassurance in their attempt to reassure themselves: “It’s got to get better.” The gnawing in their gut is so palpable I can sense it through a text message. I know that feeling well.
What’s worse than a bad outcome is no outcome. A long pause. The feeling is equivalent to the long-suffering of waiting to be executed. It could be any second, minute, hour or day — or it could be weeks or months. The waiting itself can be as painful as lethal injection. “What? When? When? When?” becomes a melodic trance that plays on repeat in our heads.
That’s the common theme with the Covid-19 pandemic. Will our jobs still be there tomorrow? Will we be able to feed our family? When will things become normal again? When can we end social distancing? When will there be a vaccine? The need to know when prevails over the hows. Waiting offers little solace because it offers nothing to do but to just… well, wait. Hope and faith can feel ephemeral because they lack tangibility.
In no way am I attempting to equate the extreme cases of COVID-19 which result in morbidity to the stateless or undocumented journey, except when stateless persons and undocumented immigrants experience human right violations that lead to death.
When friends share their anxieties, how do I tell them I lived this uncertainty for a decade? I want them to realize that if their stateless and undocumented immigrant neighbors have the human capacity to endure this uncertainty and survive, they do too.
Fortitude in the time of uncertainty does not involve obsessing over all of the possible outcomes. Nor does it mean focusing only on the negative possibilities. It’s easier to anticipate bad news because it protects us from disappointment. But was there ever a moment in your life where you experienced momentary happiness? What if possibility meant creating internal peace and happiness and doing it one day at a time? It’s simply not about waiting for the situation to end so that we can continue with life or putting life on pause and looking to everyone outside of you to soothe you.
Perhaps we should look to these same people who sit on the margins of society to guide us in strengthening our coping mechanisms or on how to develop resilience in a time of uncertainty. Better yet, we can see this as an opportunity to see our likeness in another and connect on shared human experience. For former stateless and undocumented people like me, this is our opportunity to remember what we already know and share it with others. When we are screaming for someone to make the pain stop, we should be looking in the mirror and speaking to ourselves. When I stopped waiting for a document to validate that I belonged, that I was a human being rather than an illegal alien — when I claimed within myself that I was a Citizen of the World — that’s when the fear ceased and I became free.