Episode Six | Untethered

Listen to Episode 06:

Every job has its freedoms and limitations, but sometimes all you need to endure the ups and downs is a noble purpose. This week: A man who saves airline passengers from errant wildlife and another whoʼs made it his lifeʼs work to build a country for the nationless.

Illustration by Josh Cochran

A country for the countryless Filmmaker Mohamed Alborno dreams of a place for those who are citizens of nowhere

An extended audio version of this story can be heard on Episode 6 of Work in Progress, Slack’s podcast about the meaning and identity we find in work.

A few years back, Mohamed Alborno was standing in a kitchen in Manchester, England, talking about his first film, about a man who wants to start a new country because he can’t return to his own.

“Mohamed, who do you think this character is?” someone asked him.

A scene from Alborno’s 2011 film The Committee

Alborno figured the man in his movie was just some figment of his imagination, a man trying to get somewhere. But when he thought about it a bit more, it dawned on him.

“Oh my god,” he realized. The character was him.

If Alborno had a country to return to, it might be Palestine, though he and his parents, who are Palestinian refugees, aren’t allowed to live there. Egypt is another possibility. Alborno was born in Egypt and grew up there, but because his parents aren’t Egyptian, he was never granted citizenship.

Though he’s a permanent resident of Canada, Alborno isn’t a citizen anywhere. The technical term for his status is “stateless.” According to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, he is one of at least 10 million people around the world who don’t have a nationality.

Alborno compares being a resident of a country and not a citizen to living as a guest in someone else’s house. You’re constantly trying to keep a low profile and not make any trouble.

“You don’t live fully,” he says.

What Alborno failed to grasp back when he was working on his first film, was how much this part of his identity informs his work.

This can be true for many of us. We might choose a certain field because of our interests or personality or because of some hidden part of ourselves. Sometimes it’s obvious, like when a childhood love of pets leads you to become a vet. Sometimes it’s less so, like when you realize afterward that you just made a movie about yourself.

“I created this fictional character as a safe way of expressing what I want to see and talking about my story without being confrontational,” Alborno explains, with the clarity of hindsight.

Today, Alborno is based in Toronto, where he does start-up consulting and makes documentary films, and is not only aware that his past influences his work, he fully embraces it.

In fact, his first film has gone on to become a true story.

A preview of The New Country Film Project from Alborno’s Indiegogo Campaign

Alborno is currently working on documentary called The New Country Film Project. It’s a crowd-sourced production that features people around the world answering questions about identity, nationality and citizenship, and imagining things they would like to see in a new country — like a system where people are paid according to their level of kindness and what they contribute to their community.

The film also follows people creating new countries in places ranging from man-made islands to online countries like BitNation.

“The ultimate goal of the project is to ask those questions about our humanity, about those labels that we put on one another, and accordingly decide your fate in life,” Alborno explains.

The project has also inspired Alborno to start his own country, just like that character in his first film.

In Alborno’s online country, no land will been taken from anyone to create it. There will be no fights about borders or need for a military. He envisions an online place where people can barter, connect, and perhaps appoint ambassadors.

And above all, he wants to create a place where stateless people, such as himself, can travel freely and take for granted that they belong.

“My wildest dream would be to offer people the freedom of movement,” he says. “With their physical needs covered, so that they can think what really, really matters and what this life is about, what brought us here in the first place.”

Work in Progress story produced by Dan Misener.

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