July 23, 2014 at 9:21 AM ET
Like many little girls in love with Disney movies, Emily Heaton wanted to be a princess. Her father traveled 8,000 miles to claim a kingdom and make her dream come true.
Right before Christmas, Emily and her dad, Jeremiah Heaton, were having a tea party. Emily loves the Disney Channel’s Princess Sofia — and she very seriously asked her father if she could be a princess.
“Yes,” he said.
Heaton says he would have given the same answer if she had asked if she could be an astronaut or a doctor — because he wants his daughter to believe she can be whatever she wants.
“As a dad, I take very seriously the things I tell my children,” says Heaton, 38, who owns a mine-safety company.
When he first started searching online for a kingdom to claim and make his daughter's dream come true, he stumbled across the phrase “Terra Nullius,” which means land belonging to no one — property that no country has any claim to.
So, he Googled that term and discovered Bir Tawil, a patch of desert between Egypt and Sudan. “This has a very clear history of being unclaimed for over 100 years. Neither bordering nation has had any governance,” he says. “I said, ‘Here’s a place of land. What would it take to go there and claim the land?'”
He says it took months to get permission from the Egyptian government to travel beyond the tourist areas and get to the land. Other than that, all he needed was a plane ticket, a GPS (to find the land and make sure he was in the right place and not claiming part of an existing country), and a flag.
At dinner one evening, his three children designed their country’s flag on the back of a kids’ menu.
The star at the top represents their mother, Kelly, a middle school science teacher.
“She most certainly is the guiding star around here. She keeps tabs on everything and pays all the bills and takes care of the schedules — her fitting place is at the top,” Heaton says.
The three smaller stars represent the kids: Justin, 12; Caleb, 10; and Emily, now 7. The crown in the center is their dad, the king.
On June 13, Heaton drove 200 miles from his home in Abington, Virginia to the Charlotte, North Carolina airport, and boarded a $1,600 flight which took him to Munich, then Cairo. Then he drove six hours south along the Red Sea, then into the desert. Finally, on June 16, in 110-degree heat, he climbed a hill, drank six bottles of water, and planted his country’s new flag about 8,000 miles from home.
He says he didn’t have to buy the land, because no one owns it. “I used the same process that has been used to claim land for millennia,” he says.
So, unlike closing on a house in America where the buyer signs stacks and stacks of papers — there was no paperwork in claiming a kingdom. “But there will be paperwork trying to join the United Nations,” he says.
After Heaton claimed his country — on the day of his daughter’s 7th birthday, so she would always remember the date — he returned to Egypt and updated his Facebook status announcing he had claimed the Kingdom of North Sudan.
“If I were to die tomorrow, there would be no doubt in her mind ever about the lengths I would go to provide for her and to show her that I love her,” he says.
Emily asked that all the land be used to create a garden to feed starving children in Africa. (She lives on a 26-acre farm in southern Virginia, and does not quite understand that the new land is a desert.)
It really upsets Heaton that some people have sent nasty e-mails saying all he did was spoil his daughter.
Emily, Heaton says, is a normal, unspoiled little girl who loves gymnastics, gets straight A’s and has a white kitten named Marshmallow.
And he says he never calls Emily “princess” unless he’s asking her to do a chore.
“Like, ‘Princess Emily, it’s time to go into the laundry room and remove the clothes from the dryer.’ It’s always accompanied by some humble task – it shows there’s work associated with that title,” he says.