In an age when twenty million refugees are displaced worldwide, when passports are easily bought and sold, and when whole countries might soon be submerged by rising tides, are national borders truly relevant? Journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian '08CC, '11JRN reflects on the meaning of citizenship in the twenty-first century.

by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian ’08CC, ’11JRN Published Winter 2015-16
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Illustrations by Davide Bonazzi

Watch an interview with Atossa Araxia Abrahamian at:

So many stories begin with borders.

I was brought up with no sense of a motherland or fatherland, no pledges of allegiance, no flags with which to identify. I am a citizen of Switzerland, where I was raised; Canada, where I was born; and Iran, where my parents of Russian and Armenian descent lived before leaving to study abroad. I speak fluent French and English, bad German, and passable Russian. I live in New York but don’t feel as if I belong to any particular country, state, or national community. I prefer to think of myself as a citizen of the world.

The first image most people have of a world citizen, or “cosmopolite,” is of a person of wealth, education, and privilege — a member of the global elite who travels in rarefied circles and spends too much time in frequent-flyer lounges. The term is used ad absurdum in other contexts, too; you’d never know by reading the Google results for “cosmopolitan” — which include links to a Las Vegas strip hotel and a raunchy women’s magazine — that the initial concept of cosmopolitanism was born long before air travel was even possible, some 2,500 years ago, in Greece.

Diogenes of Sinope was the West’s first conscientious objector, and perhaps the first to refuse to pledge allegiance to his homeland. In the wake of the Peloponnesian War, he opted out of society, and the lifestyle he chose — drinking and debating all day, urinating openly, sleeping in a wine barrel — won him the nickname of Kunos, the dog. His school of thinkers took up the label proudly, dubbing themselves Cynics, and when respectable people asked Diogenes what city was his home, he replied, “I am a kosmopolites” — a citizen of the universe.

A generation after Diogenes, a fiery young intellectual named Zeno of Citium burst onto the Athenian scene. The school he founded, known as Stoicism, agreed that the premise of the polis needed some serious rethinking; but where Diogenes had pissed on the very notion of the city-state, the Stoics declared that moral evolution required rising above national borders and joining a universal community. All men on earth, they contended, must strive to be kosmopolites, governed not by local custom but by the reason that unites all mankind and binds together the citizens of the universe.

It’s worth revisiting this concept today — not just because looming environmental crises such as rising sea levels will change the world map and affect us all, regardless of our nationality, but because it’s becoming less clear what it means to be a citizen of anywhere in the twenty-first century. At a moment when there are more refugees displaced from their homes than there have been since World War II, when Syrians will risk everything for a chance at a better future in Europe, and when droves of unaccompanied children from South America arrive at the US border seeking sanctuary, why are people still categorized by where they’re born? As a result of the globalization of media, finance, education, and trade, ours is increasingly a world of men and women who, whether for economic, personal, or political reasons, want or need to live in places they were not assigned to by the accident of birth: the farm worker from Mexico who looks to California for seasonal employment; the Chinese entrepreneur who invests in foreign stocks and educates his kids in Canada; the Irishman kept apart from his Singaporean lover because of artificial borders set decades ago; the billionaire who treats citizenship as a commodity and buys passports and residence permits in order to travel more freely and pay lower taxes.

Photograph by Victor Jeffreys II

The reality is that however intertwined our collective fates might be, individual nations still have the last word in determining who can go where, when, how, and for how long — and the consequences are predictably bleak. The wealthy can move freely between countries and exploit the “borderless” world that advocates of globalization promise. The same goes for their money. But the poor who try to cross borders don’t always arrive at their destinations, and routinely die trying. The sinking ships move from east to west. The migrants move from south to north. Along these journeys, a wealth- and class-based hierarchy of nationalities emerges: German, good. Swedish, good. Canadian, good. Afghan, bad. This taxonomy has its own terms of art: if you are poor or black or on the brink of death, you’re a migrant; hardworking and from a third-world country, you’re an immigrant; rich and white, you’re an expat.

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