When Nationality Limits Mobility

Sometimes privilege dictates how far you can go.
July 28, 2015

Rafiq and I say goodbye and part ways early in the morning. The night before, the two of us, along with a few Palestinian and American friends, had been telling stories of the places we come from as we listened to the beautiful music of a spontaneously born five-man band. We were in Birzeit, a small Palestinian university town.

I had traveled to the West Bank as part of a team of college students working on a documentary project for a local nonprofit organization in Nablus, a small city thirty miles north of Birzeit. A group of Palestinian college students, including Rafiq, had been working with us on the project as translators, and after a few weeks our professional relationships had inevitably transformed into friendships.

That night we were all in Birzeit, hanging out and taking a break from work before continuing our trip into Jerusalem the following morning. But not all of us would travel. The next morning all Palestinians would return to Nablus, while all non-Palestinians would continue to the old city.

I distinctly remember Rafiq’s look at the moment of separation: a mix of disappointment, sadness, and helplessness. I could tell he wanted to come along so badly. After all, Jerusalem is only twenty miles south, less than an hour’s drive. But like all the other Palestinians in the group, Rafiq was not allowed to visit the city without being granted permission in advance from the Israeli military.

I have been privileged to travel to places I never would have imagined I would visit. From studying abroad in Belgium and Ghana, or working in Malawi and Palestine, traveling has enriched the way I view the world. Even when I encounter situations or people I fundamentally disagree with—like the Ghanaian Pentecostal preacher who hosted me once—it has helped me to better understand them and to better understand myself. Bearing witness to how other people live their lives in distant places opens a door into our most noticeable differences but also into our shared humanity.

But in many ways, I can relate to Rafiq’s feelings that morning. As a Colombian citizen, I find my ability and desire to move around the world are often questioned. During the late 1980s and early ’90s, being Colombian was equated with drugs and crime. And although things are different today, my passport still carries much of that history and weight.

I often need a visa before traveling, which means filling in dull forms, dealing with bureaucracy, and paying expensive fees. Occasionally, I have to ask a friend of a friend to write me a letter of invitation to their country, which requires them to go to a police station to show their residency status, birth certificate, and mortgage—a number of senseless actions, all to prove that I’m worthy of visiting a place. Though I have learned to navigate the system, when a consulate employee tells me I have no reason to visit his country or the one time I was denied a visa, I can’t help but feel “othered” and humiliated. And there are so many whose nationalities won’t even allow them the opportunity to leave their borders.

Passport Index is a website that ranks passports by the number of countries a citizen can visit without a visa. The American and British passports are tied at first place; the Colombian ranks 56; the Palestinian at 80, the last place. Browsing through the list, one can easily— and unsurprisingly—notice a pattern that reveals our global order and much of our recent history. Powerful and wealthy countries, many of which are former colonial powers, are at the top of the list. Poor and developing countries, most of them former colonies, are at the bottom.

That morning I continued the trip from Birzeit to Jerusalem thinking about Rafiq and what it meant for me to continue traveling and for him to stay behind. It was a reminder that even though my nationality limits my mobility, I shouldn’t take for granted the privileges I do enjoy, and it put into perspective my experience as a traveler. Exploring the world is one of the most empowering and formative experiences I have ever had. But that experience doesn’t inhabit a vacuum. It is permeated by global power and politics—the politics that allowed me to continue and forced Rafiq to go back.

Patiño Contreras ’12 is a visual journalist who has lived and worked in different countries and who is deeply interested in questions of global mobility. She is pursuing a graduate degree at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.