Al Jazeera World

Passport to Freedom

The stories of Syrians, Iraqis and Egyptians emigrating and seeking dual nationality following the 2011 Arab Spring.

Filmmaker: Ahmed Abdelhady

In Passport to Freedom, Arab nationals from Syria, Iraq, and Egypt describe what led them either to flee their country as refugees or go abroad to set up a new life – and, in the process, get dual nationality and a second passport. The 2011 revolutions sparked an increase in the numbers of emigrants, wanting to escape political instability and economic uncertainty in several Arab countries.

“Emigration used to be a way of solving economic problems to achieve an end,” explains Ayman Zohry, a population and migration expert at the American University of Cairo. “Now, it’s become a desire to emigrate permanently and live abroad.”

Zohry notes that two years after the Arab Spring, there were “about 23 million Arabs living in countries other than their own.”

Not just revolution, but war has forced the Syrians to flee – but according to researcher Yaseer Shabani, a perceived lack of “social justice” has been the main cause of Iraqis and Egyptians going abroad.

Around 2.3 million Egyptians emigrated in the year 2000, but this climbed to 3.46 million in 2013. 

Passports issued by many Arab countries are limited and don't allow you to move freely.

by Ayman Zohry, population and migration expert, AUC

Similarly, in Iraq, from 2000 to 2001, the emigration figure was 1.15 million, but from 2013 to 2014, the number reached 2.32 million.

“We are talking about extremely high, catastrophic figures [which] rob Arab societies of their young people,” says Shabani. “It could be sectarian or because of a job, an invasion or a revolution. But they were all because of a lack of social justice and this is the result.”

Zohry suggests that the whole idea of a homeland has changed, rather than people’s feelings towards their own countries. “The mechanisms of love for country and attachment to it have changed.”

Two Egyptians in the film have already emigrated and have new passports. Samah Sadek has moved to Canada and Reda elMasry to the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Egyptian journalist Ahmed el-Sheikh and rap artist Mohammed Shreif have suffered in different ways in post-revolution Egypt and want to leave for the West as soon as they get the chance.

Author Samah Sadek had never considered leaving Egypt. “At first, I wasn’t thinking about emigrating or leaving Egypt,” says Sadek. “I never imagined I’d be living anywhere other than the country I love.”

However, “after the revolution and the events that followed, and incidents when people appeared in court and were rescued by their second nationality, I started to think it was important to have a different passport”, she says. “With my Canadian passport, my value as a human being is greater. My Egyptian passport reduces my value.”

For installation technician Reda elMasry, the decision to leave Egypt for Georgia came down to the effect the revolution had on his business. He used to install surveillance systems for the government and the police. “I lost a lot of money,” he says. “Every time I went there to complain, they said things weren’t working, the equipment was destroyed. They said it was damaged after the revolution and refused to pay me.”

Forget I was ever an Iraqi: Passport to Freedom

“I just got tired of it and thought about changing my nationality,” he says, adding that he feels a greater sense of personal freedom in Georgia.

Violence in Iraq drove hotel owner Khalaf Jassem to Georgia where he, too, has a new passport. “I’m not harassed as I was in Iraq because of my denomination, race, gender or religion. No one cares here.”

Hagy Farasdaq used to own a clothes factory in Iraq, but when he and his young daughter were beaten at a military checkpoint, he also decided to move to Georgia.

“One day, I went to Baghdad to buy some merchandise and took my daughter with me. It’s about 55km from Fallujah with eight security checkpoints. One of these is Al-Ghazalieh and it’s the worst. They told me to get out of the car and I said I had to help my daughter out first. ‘You’re concerned about your daughter?’ he said, and slapped her in the face,” he recalls.

Hagy was beaten and ended up with a dislocated shoulder and four broken ribs. 

“That’s when I decided to forget about Iraq, my homeland,” he says. “Many people say they’d never give up their nationality. But they should first ask what makes someone give it up.”

Syrian refugees Rana Ayoubi and her husband Mahmoud AlKurdi escaped to Turkey. Rana says she lived comfortably in Syria and was reluctant to move when fighting first broke out. But after losing her home and witnessing the devastation, “Syria was no longer a place for me,” she says.

As Syrians in Turkey, “it was very difficult for us to adapt and live in several ways,” says Mahmoud, a tailor by trade. Without the necessary work permits, “I didn’t have the right to do anything.”

For Syrian refugee Abdallah Hilal, Georgia was an attractive destination because it did not demand a visa for Syrians. Once registered with the immigration ministry, “I was allowed to live and work here.”

The factory owner proudly says, “I am very thankful to Georgia for not putting any obstacles to our residency here. Nobody asks us where we’re going or where we’re from or tells us we have to leave after a certain time.” Hilal is still waiting for his Georgian passport.

“The Arab world no longer accepts the Arab world. Arab citizens and political regimes in the Arab world no longer accept each other so my passport doesn’t allow me to travel to another Arab country. It’s humiliating,” says Ayman Zohry.

What stands out in this film is the characters’ determination to find a sense of purpose, freedom and identity in their adopted homes, and a deep desire to hold citizenship that is internationally recognised, allows freedom of travel, grants them basic human rights and gives them a renewed sense of self-worth.