KUWAIT— The backstreets of the city of Al Jahra are only a half-hour drive from Kuwait City, but they feel far away from the capital’s skyscrapers. Some residents live in tin-roofed huts here and most women on the street cover their faces. Many of the residents are “Bedoon,” or stateless people.
One morning this fall, the sound of children enthusiastically reciting the alphabet floated into the air. A six-year-old girl says she would like to grow up to be a teacher. At the moment she is lucky to be a student at the makeshift school.
This fall, a government agency that governs the affairs of what it terms ”illegal residents” instructed the education ministry to ban children without birth certificates from all Kuwati schools, with no public explanation of the decision. Fifty Bedoon children, who were told they didn’t have the necessary documents to enroll, found spots in this makeshift school operated by volunteers. Hundreds of others are still waiting an opportunity to enroll in school at all.
Bedoon means “without” in Arabic and is short for “without nationality.” It refers to over a hundred thousand long-term residents, mostly descendants of nomadic Bedouins. Their status is a sensitive political issue in Kuwait, where they have long been marginalized, politically, economically and educationally. But the latest decision to deprive Bedoon children of education has sparked serious debate, and some push back from civil society organizations and academics. The ministry of education released a statement on November 12 saying it supported the right to education to all residents on its territory and said “we are working to solve the problem of illegal residents.”
Still, no solution has arrived for Bedoon children.
“Education is a basic human right, which should not be linked to any political reasons,” said Ibtihal Al-Khatib, professor of English language and literature at Kuwait University. Al-Khatib is a Bedoon-rights activist and is leading a campaign to collect university professors’ signatures in support of Bedoons’ right to education. “As academics, we want to deliver our message that every child should enroll in school in Kuwait without conditions,” explained al-Khatib. She said she hopes that the campaign will force the government to reverse its decision.
International organizations regard the approximately 110,000 Bedoon living in Kuwait as neither citizens nor foreigners. They are denied the rights of citizens, including public education, free healthcare, public-sector jobs and the ability to get official identification documents, such as passports, marriage licenses and death and birth certificates.
Because of this, Bedoon children usually attend private schools. In these schools, parents must pay up to 30 percent of the tuition and the rest is supposed to be covered by state aid intended specifically for Bedoon. But this year the authorities have refused to enroll Bedoon children even in private schools, requiring birth certificates, which Bedoon families aren’t able to get.
“My son is 6 years old but hasn’t enrolled to school this year as he doesn’t have a birth certificate,” said Karim Adel Ghoneim, a Bedoon father. “The authorities put ‘security restrictions’ on my father after the Iraq invasion, so my son has inherited this illegal situation from his grandfather and will bequeath this to his sons if nothing changes.”
Ghoneim’s father was accused, but acquitted, of deserting at the time of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. “Security restrictions” can be imposed on any individual, whether the person is convicted of a crime or not, and inherited by their family members.
To protest the new decision, the teachers’ syndicate of Kuwait started an effort in October named “Katateeb Al-Bedoun” (Bedoon schools) and called on teachers to volunteer to teach Bedoon children at the society’s headquarters in Al Jahra.
The new program “is a letter of protest and a way to shed light to our dilemma,” said Awad Al-Onan the campaign supervisor. According to him, over 600 children are affected by the latest decision. That number could reach 3,000 if the new policy is applied to children of all ages.
The makeshift school only has two classes for 50 students. Its goal isn’t to solve the problem but to highlight it. The campaign has gotten some visibility on social media, but has been ignored by most of the Kuwaiti press.
According to Bedoon Rights, an online network that documents the human rights situation of Kuwait’s stateless community, Kuwait University usually denies admission to Bedoons. The few Bedoon students who make it in must have outstanding grades and apply considerable pressure.
At the school, the volunteers teach Arabic, English and Islamic classes every day. Many of them are from the Bedoon community itself.
“I understand the situation of these children, as I lived a similar experience.” said Tahani , a volunteer Arabic teacher, a Bedoon herself. “Our life is very difficult. I barely studied and can’t get a job. I just want to help these children to get their most basic rights to read and write.”
Still, makeshift classes can’t be a solution. “We can’t grant accredited certificates; we offer an improvised form of education in a place that isolates them from their peers,” Al-Onan said. He is concerned that “the government decision is just a first step. If it passes without protest from the community and human-rights associations, he said, the decision could be expanded to include Bedoon students who have birth certificates.
Some of the Bedoon, like Ghoneim and his son, were born in Kuwait or have lived there for decades, but are unable to prove their nationality. In recent years, the Bedoon have held protests demanding Kuwaiti citizenship. The protests have been dispersed by force and led to arrests.
The Kuwaiti government looks upon the Bedoon as foreigners who have destroyed their identification papers so they might pass for Kuwaitis. They are often suspected of being politically disloyal or subversive. This year, the Kuwaiti authorities proposed buying citizenship in bulk for the Bedoon in Comoros, the islands which sell citizenship to stateless people around the world. The Kuwaiti government promised advantages that include a residence permit in Kuwait, free education, health care and the right to work. But as foreign residents, rather than stateless people, the Bedoon could also lose protections and be more easily expelled. Press reports said that offer was met with “anger and rejection” by the Bedoon community. The Bedoons remain in limbo.
“Depriving Bedoon children of education is a danger to the society as a whole,” said Shafeeq Ghabra, a political science professor at Kuwait University and the first president of the American University of Kuwait. Ghabra considers the government’s latest action a kind of violation of the most important human rights, the right to education and literacy. “When you’re depriving children of education, you confiscate their future.”