SAMUEL FOSTER, who now lives in Philadelphia, lived in the United States for decades without knowing he was a man without a country. He found that out in 2008 when he entered a homeless shelter here.

It seems like fiction. Samuel Foster, 84, was living in America, but unable to prove his nationality.

Technically, he was stateless, but became a ward of the state - ours.

A few weeks back, he got a passport and wants to leave to travel to England to join his son, whom he has not seen for 35 years, for Christmas.

Foster shared his strange journey with me yesterday at what's called RHD Fernwood, the city's nonprofit emergency-housing shelter, funded by the city's Office of Supportive Housing.

Foster was born in St. Mary's Parish in Jamaica in 1931, when the island nation belonged to Great Britain.

At 28, he used his British passport to travel to England "to get experience, get a trade, learn to live," Foster told me, as he leaned on his black cane.

A man with strong features and a firm memory, he easily dredged up dates and addresses from long ago. He wore dark glasses because he just had cataract surgery.

In England, he arrived in 1959 and lived in Luton, north of London. He learned to be an auto mechanic, "diesel or gasoline, I mastered both of them," he said with pride.

He married and had two sons, Harvell and Eyan, but the marriage ended in divorce after seven years.

In 1980, America beckoned. "I just wanted to know such a great country, men walking on the moon, let me see this great country," he said.

He came on a six-week visitor visa and overstayed, showing our immigration system has been leaking oil for a long time.

He found work, found a home in Brooklyn and found he liked it here, but knew he could be deported. He made a second mistake by engaging in a "bogus marriage" that cost him about $2,500, but did get him working papers.

After eight years he left Brooklyn for Philadelphia because "I understand that everything's cheaper here, I could buy a good house and work, too," he said.

And that's what he did, starting in 1988 in West Philly, where he lived in a house and fixed cars in his garage. "I was doing well," he told me. "I was paying my taxes, paying my rent."

It was all good, until 1992 when he had an accident on the job, later followed by a physical breakdown which bankrupted him and landed him in a city shelter.

It was 2008, he was 77, in poor health and alone.

He had last seen his family in England in 1980, long before the rise of electronic media, and he had fallen out of touch with them.

Truthfully, it wouldn't have been hard to let Foster rot, like an unclaimed parcel on a pier, but RHD Fernwood got involved.

To make a very long story short, staffers led by Fernwood Director Julius Jackson, tracked down Foster's family. His son, Eyan, wanted to take him in.

"Our first conversation with Mr. Foster was about his sons in Great Britain," Jackson told me.

That's when it was learned Foster had no passport.

In the long decades since he left Jamaica, the Caribbean nation achieved independence and issued its own passports. He didn't have one and his original United Kingdom passport was stolen in 1985.

Fernwood spent a lot of time and a lot of money - this isn't really the nonprofit's job - working to restore Foster's paperwork. He couldn't leave the United States without a passport.

That's what just came through, from Jamaica, but his son, a laborer with six children - grandchildren Foster has never seen - can't afford to buy him a ticket to Great Britain, where he lives.

So here's where I invite Daily News readers to play Santa to help get Foster home for Christmas - and permanently.

Tickets for him and a required travel guardian total $3,200, and must be bought this week.

If you want to spread holiday cheer, contact me below.

Phone: 215-854-5977

On Twitter: @StuBykofsky

Blog: ph.ly/Byko

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