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Stateless And Stranded On American Samoa

Mikhail Sebastian lived in Los Angeles before his fateful trip to American Samoa. (Courtesy Mikhail Sebastian)

For many of us, no matter where we go, we'll always have a home. We'll always be from somewhere. But what if that somewhere no longer existed?

That is the strange position in which Mikhail Sebastian finds himself. Officially, he is from nowhere and has nowhere to go. The 39-year-old is stateless and stranded on American Samoa, a U.S. territory in the South Pacific.

Sebastian is an ethnic Armenian born in what is now Azerbaijan, but back then was part of the Soviet Union. When war broke out in the late 1980s, Sebastian says his aunt was stoned to death and he fled.

He tried to take refuge in Armenia, but couldn't stay. "Armenia was overloaded with all the Armenian refugees coming from Azerbaijan," he tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "Basically, they did not recognize you as Armenian if you don't speak Armenian and you don't know your culture."

He wound up in Turkmenistan, but not for long. Male homosexuality is outlawed there, and Sebastian is gay.

I don't have any other place to go, I really don't.
Mikhail Sebastian

He made it to the United States in 1995 on a work visa and applied for political asylum. It was denied, and Sebastian was ordered to leave. With a Soviet passport that was invalid by then, Mikhail says he had nowhere to go. So he stayed and eventually was arrested and jailed for six months.

"When they released me in February 2003, they told me that 'We know you are stateless and there is no country in the world that will be able to take you.'" Sebastian was given a work permit and he built a life here in the U.S. He took courses in business administration and travel management, and found a job that he loved, working as a barista in Los Angeles.

But there was a condition tied to his residency.

"I am a stateless person and I knew I was not allowed to travel outside the United States," he says. If he did, he would not be allowed back in.

Sebastian adores traveling, so he contented himself exploring far-flung U.S. territories like Guam and Puerto Rico.

Then last December, he decided to take a New Year's trip.

"I was thinking about other places within the United States that I never explored before. And it came up to American Samoa," he says. "I went to Los Angeles immigration office and I asked them if I will be able to go to American Samoa, and the guy checked my documents and he said, 'You're okay to go.'"

So Sebastian went and spent a few days sight-seeing and hiking. Then he says he was advised to see "the other side of Samoa, which is western Samoa. But at that time I had no idea that western Samoa was an independent nation."

Sebastian took a quick flight over and spent a short amount of time there, then flew back to American Samoa. But when he tried to board a flight back home to L.A., he was barred. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said he had self-deported.

"In 2002, an immigration judge with the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review ordered Sebastian to depart the United States," ICE spokeswoman Gillian Christensen said in a statement. "In December 2011 when Mr. Sebastian traveled to American Samoa and Samoa, he was prohibited from returning to the United States due to the immigration judge's order."

ICE maintains the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) applies to the United States and its territories, except for American Samoa, which has its own immigration system.

So for nearly a year now, Sebastian has been biding his time on an island that's about the size of Washington D.C. Local law prevents him from finding work. He's staying with a local family and the American Samoan government gives him $50 a week to get by.

"I come to McDonald's every day from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. because that is the only place I can use the wi-fi and to connect to my friends and to ask for help."

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has taken up his case. American Samoa's delegate to Congress, Eni Faleomavaega, is asking the Department of Homeland Security to let Sebastian back into the U.S.

For his part, Sebastian says while it has been tough living in limbo on the island, he has not given up hope.

"I lived 16 years in the United States and the United States is the only home and country I know. And I don't have any other place to go, I really don't."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

We're going to stay with news from abroad. And this next one is about being from somewhere that no longer exists and having nowhere to go.

Thirty-nine-year-old Mikhail Sebastian was born in the former Soviet Union. But when the USSR broke up in the early 1990s, the place he lived became the independent state of Azerbaijan. Now, Sebastian is an ethnic Armenian, and so the Azeris refused to grant him citizenship. But when he tried to move to neighboring Armenia, the Armenians wouldn't allow it because he couldn't prove he was Armenian. For starters, he doesn't speak the language, and he knows little about the culture.

So in 1995, Mikhail Sebastian took his Soviet passport, which was irrelevant by then, and he managed to fly to the United States on a temporary business visa. He overstayed that visa and was eventually detained by immigration officials.

MIKHAIL SEBASTIAN: When they released me in February 2003, they told me that we know that you are stateless and there is no country in the world that will be able to take you. So basically, you will be allowed to live in the United States in limbo. We're going to give you permission to work.

RAZ: So Mikhail built a life here. He took some college courses and found a job as a barista in L.A. The condition was simple: If he left the U.S., he wouldn't be allowed back in. Now, the thing is Mikhail Sebastian loves to travel. So he went to Hawaii, Alaska and U.S. territories like Puerto Rico and Guam. No problem, until he decided to take a short trip last December.

SEBASTIAN: And I was thinking about other places within the United States that I never explored before. And it came up to American Samoa. And I was like, OK, this island belongs to the United States, and I will make this trip. And I went to Los Angeles immigration office and I asked them if I will be able to go to American Samoa. And the guy checked my documents and he said that you're OK to go.

RAZ: But it actually wasn't OK. When Mikhail tried to board his flight home to L.A. from American Samoa, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said American Samoa has its own immigration system. And by going there, Mikhail Sebastian had self-deported. That was 10 months ago, and Mikhail is still there. He's forbidden from finding work, and he's desperately trying to figure out a way back.

SEBASTIAN: It's tough. I'm really mentally - I'm getting crazy here. But I'm very thankful to the local government of American Samoa. They accommodated me with the local Samoan family in one of the village here. And they do provide me $50 a week allowance so I can buy something. But also, I'm very thankful to the owner of the house I'm staying.

RAZ: And what do you do all day?

SEBASTIAN: I come to McDonald's every day from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. because that's the only place I can use the Wi-Fi and to connect with my friends and to ask for the help to communicate with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that are on my side and working with me. But I cannot be outside because I am very temperature-sensitive person, and the climate here, tropical humidity, is just kind of killing me.

RAZ: Do you have any sense when or whether, in fact, you will ever be allowed to return to the U.S.?

SEBASTIAN: Oh, Guy, I hope that the situation will be resolved because I lived 16 years in the United States. And United States is the only home and country I know. And I don't have any other place to go. I really don't. My job, my friends - I studied there. I integrated within American society and assimilated. And I don't have any other consulate or embassy to turn around and look for protection who will be able to advocate on my behalf but the United States.

RAZ: That's Mikhail Sebastian. He's a stateless man. He's been stranded in American Samoa. Mikhail Sebastian, thank you for sharing your story. Good luck. And we hope it gets results soon.

SEBASTIAN: Thank you so much, Guy. Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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