“You were born here in Kuwait, you grew up here and your parent, your mother, is Kuwaiti. What do you mean by that … that you’re stateless?” asked Neil, a newly appointed Melbournian English teacher at a private school in Kuwait. At a Starbucks overlooking the harbour, our friend Khalid just announced that he is amongst the 100,000 stateless residents of Kuwait.
Neil’s voice faded, and his eyes widened in awe. He sunk back into the sofa chair. I could tell he’d become distressed, nauseated at the thought of it. He scanned Khalid’s face then fixed his eyes back to me.
“Do you know about this, Mubarak?”
Before I could say anything, Khalid reached for his wallet and pulled out an ID card issued by the Central Agency of Resolving Illegal Residents’ Status (CARIRS) in Kuwait – the organisation dedicated to rectify the statelessness issue. I’d only read about the ID. I never thought it existed. Let alone knowing my childhood friend is stateless.
Khalid and his family are all stateless. When Kuwait gained its independence in 1961, marking the end of the registration period for citizenship, those who were illiterate or administratively invisible were made stateless by default. The stateless community in Kuwait has been growing ever since.
Unfortunately, some stateless Kuwaitis do not possess a birth certificate or any ID (including a CARIRS ID), and inevitably they are born into a life in limbo. Khalid, like his stateless counterparts, cannot access public amenities or get a job. After the 2012 Stateless of Kuwait protest demanded citizenship and other basic rights,the CARIRS devised a colour-coded ID system to divide and crack down on the protestors.
The system works like a traffic light. The green IDs are for those who might be eligible for citizenship; the yellow ID holders need to produce necessary documents in order to obtain the green IDs; red ID holders have “security issues”. Khalid claimed that he’s never seen a red ID, though he swore that one of his Stateless of Kuwait friends was deported recently.
Fortunately, Khalid’s ID is green. He handed it to me. I sat there, taken aback by what I saw before me. A Stateless ID from Kuwait.
“How did this happen?”
He looked at me for a minute. “I’m as puzzled as you are, Mubarak.”
“My grandfather was born in Kuwait, my dad served in the military, and his brothers died in service during the invasion,” he continued, referring to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
“Five years before that I was born with nothing but a birth certificate. Kuwait is Dhirti [my country]. How can I be bidoon [stateless] when my family lived here for two generations?”
Khalid’s voice began to crackle. “I can’t attend public schools whatsoever. By law I cannot even work in Kuwait. If I do, everything has to be under the table. And what breaks my heart is that the Kuwaiti government wouldn’t issue us my grandfather’s death certificate. It’s as if he never existed.”
Like my countrymen, I remained silent. I was only capable of showing concern for Khalid, offering no help. I spent the night feeling paralysed. Anguished over Kuwait’s discriminatory system.
“Five of spades, a strong latte.” A House of Cards’ barista at the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus calls out, letting Khalid know his coffee is ready. I’m researching for my postgraduate degree now. It’s spring. It’s already been three years since my conversation with Khalid and Neil in the Starbucks in Kuwait.
“Mmm … this coffee is really good,” says Khalid, giving his signature nod of approval.
It’s been three years since our last reunion. I never thought he would be able to leave Kuwait under his circumstances. He tells me how much he struggled. He lodged visa applications to several countries while in Kuwait, but almost none of the embassies there approved his application to study or migrate.
Khalid is smart and ambitious, with a gentle soul. He is now a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney. I want to ask how he ended up leaving Kuwait. But unlike Khalid, I haven’t changed in the last three years. I remain silent, burying my country’s negligence and inhumane treatment towards my stateless brothers and sisters. I have tried to bury my shame. I’ve buried my dignity with it.
I continue to observe Khalid sipping on his latte. Khalid looks at me and smiles. I realise that this Khalid, the one standing before me, is different. I suddenly see Khalid in a new light. Australia has paved a future for him.
Suddenly, a wave of joy comes over me, and I find myself embracing my dear friend.
Everything is possible for my friend.
Mubarak H. is a Kuwaiti-born Australian educator. He has volunteered with Child Wise, Australian Refugee Association, and Abeer (Children with Autism Centre). He holds a Master of Teaching. He is currently completing his Master of Public Policy and Management at the University of Melbourne and a policy internship with the Department of Education and Training, Victoria. Email him at mubarakh [at] student.unimelb.edu.au
Neil and Khalid are pseudonyms to protect the individuals’ identities.
Feature image: Baigal Byamba/Flickr