02/20/2023 Venice → Bruxelles 

I woke up excited. After not being allowed to leave Italy for the last nine years of my life, I was finally going to experience a quintessential Italian teenage rite of passage: a school trip abroad. 

On the bus ride to the airport, trap music was blasting from the speakers brought by classmates and everyone, excited, was screaming at the top of their lungs. I, in the meantime, was sitting alone, with my face turned towards the window. Two distinct, but equally important, thoughts kept my mind busy – one was whether my first Belgian waffle should be topped with banana and nutella or strawberry and chocolate; the other was what excuse I should make up if my classmates noticed that my passport was different from theirs.

Once at the airport, we quickly moved through the security. I stood somewhere in the middle of the line. Holding my document upside-down under my ticket, I hoped no one would notice. A little while went by and it was my turn to show my identification to the officer. Wearing a white shirt with a blue blazer on top, she checked my ticket first. She looked at me, then at the document. When she noticed the huge golden “Travel Document For Refugees” inscription on the cover of the blue passport, her initial smile suddenly faded away. Perplexed, she reached for her landline and dialed a ten digit number on it. From what I could overhear, she expressed her doubts regarding the validity of the passport she was holding in her hands, like she had never seen one before. Frozen and embarrassed, I waited, with my sight cast to the gray ground. I looked over my shoulders, and, there being only two open stations at the customs, I could see the line behind me getting longer. The line was also getting quieter, as people started wondering what was going on. Closing my eyes and staring at the dark, I knew what was about to come, and I wasn’t ready to face it. After talking on the phone for another three minutes, she ended the call, handed me the ticket and the passport, and wished me a safe flight. 

Suddenly, I was back, surrounded by my classmates again. Curious to know why it had taken me so much longer than everyone else, they swarmed me with questions. I lied. 


01/18/2024 Barcelona → Los Angeles 

After spending a day exploring the streets of Barcelona, it was finally time for me to fly back to the place I now call “home”. There was just one remarkable obstacle between me and my final destination – the airport customs. Expecting the Spanish officers to be unfamiliar with the passport I was traveling with, I stepped foot into the airport four hours before my flight. Unable to check-in for flights online with my refugee travel document, I was taking my papers from my backpack while waiting in the line to get my ticket.  Little did I know that this simple task would have turned into a 45-minute interrogation. Everything escalated when the officer noticed that my citizenship, Ukrainian, did not correspond to the country that issued my passport, Italy. After I patiently tried to explain to her that people with refugee status are not allowed to have the passport of their country of origin, she looked at me skeptically and left her station to consult her manager. Once again, alone, I found myself staring at the void. With my passport taken away and no ticket in hand, I was instructed to enter a small, stuffy room – no windows nor decorations, just a white desk and two chairs, with a Spanish flag hanging on the wall. The officer came into the room a few minutes after I did, telling me that she had contacted the Italian Embassy in Barcelona to verify my identity. 

        “Is this the first time you’re traveling to the United States?” she asked. 

        “No,” I said, “I go to college there. I went home for winter break and now I’m flying back     

         for my second semester.” 

        She nodded her head . “Do you have anything that could prove that?” 

Caught off guard, I stood, stunned into silence for a few seconds, before handing her my University ID. She took a picture and left the room. 

        Entering the room again, she asked “By any chance, are there any pictures on your camera roll of you from Princeton?”

        I smiled, dumbstruck, refusing to believe what I was just asked to do. Hesitant, I let my hand slowly slide into my right pocket where my phone was. I scrolled through my pictures (some appropriate, others not really) while her eyes seared into the screen. After the most uncomfortable thirty seconds of my life, she walked out of the room yet again, telling me that now she was waiting for the US Embassy in Milan, the one that issued my F-1 visa, to confirm the legitimacy of the document. 

        “This might take some time,” she said. 

At this point, convinced I was going to miss my flight, I sat in silence, no thoughts going through my head. With no connection in the room, I couldn’t text or call my parents. The only thing I could do was check the time and count the minutes left before the boarding of my flight.  More than half an hour later, she came back into the room with my passport in one hand and a ticket in the other. 

        “You’re good to go for this time,” she said, before telling me that there was something wrong with my document and that next time I would not be allowed to board the flight. 

Confused by what I heard, I opened my mouth to ask for an explanation. Unbothered, she left. 

I ran outside the room, realizing that for all that time my luggage has just been laying unattended on the floor. I grabbed my stuff, cut through the security line, looked at the screen for the gate, and only then I realized that my flight had been delayed. 

The flight was 13 hours and 7 minutes, with no food provided on board. Compared to this, my earlier vicissitudes felt not important at all. 


Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, I was one of the few lucky ones who was granted refugee status in Italy, the country where I have spent the last ten years of my life – first as an undocumented migrant and then as an asylum seeker. Not allowed to leave the country for all those years, I finally received my “refugee travel document” in January of 2023. Although that feeling of freedom was something I had never experienced before, I soon had to deal with the stigma and challenges that individuals with refugee status face when traveling internationally. Recounted above are just two of the many unpleasant episodes I’ve come across when traveling with my passport. 

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