While international NGOs are actively trying to save Syrian refugee children from falling behind in school, there is another Arab country that is systematically denying an education to a group of children. As schools opened across Kuwait in September, over 1,000 children from the Arab nation's “stateless” Bidoon community (“bidoon” is Arabic for “without nationality”) stood outside school gates crying, because they were not allowed to enter the premises with the rest of their classmates. The reason: lack of birth certificates.
The Kuwaiti state refuses to issue birth certificates to stateless children, denying their very existence from the moment of their birth. The Bidoon issue is a long-standing one in Kuwait, but the government is now using different tactics to isolate and ostracize members of this group. Ironically, the barring of Bidoon children from entering elementary schools is happening in a school year following one in which some of the top high school graduates were Bidoon girls. These students, however, despite having exceptionally high grades, were still not allowed to pursue undergraduate degrees at Kuwait University.
Bidoon adults are often stereotyped as criminals. In every instance of a highly publicized crime involving stateless individuals, the concluding rationale is that this is typical and expected behavior from the “uncivilized Bidoon”, which justifies labeling them as unworthy of fair treatment. However, it is important to acknowledge the vicious circle that governs Bidoon life in Kuwait. Barred from attending public schools, and usually unable to afford private education, the only employment easily accessible to the Bidoon are minimum wage jobs. This leaves opportunities for a bright future painfully restricted, though so many of them have ambitious, dreams and talents similar to that of any Kuwaiti citizen.
By depriving Bidoon children of the right to attend school, Kuwait is perpetuating a damaging stereotype and intentionally sentencing an entire generation of innocent children to a lifetime of illiteracy, paving the way to unemployment, drug dealing, crime, and resentment. Too often, I see Bidoon boys no older than eight or nine years old selling watermelons on the street during Kuwait’s smoldering summer, or peddling cheap light-up toys at stoplights in the evenings. These children are absolutely conscious of how drastically different their daily routines are from those of other kids.
When Bidoon children were denied entrance to their schools during the first week of school this year, only a handful of cases were initially mentioned on social media. Some Kuwaitis volunteered to cover their tuition and buy them the new uniforms required for them to attend school — before discovering the true source of the problem was the lack of birth certificates.
It is striking that the only real effort to rescue these children from a lifetime of limited possibilities came from Kuwait’s civil society. The Teachers’ Society of Kuwait launched an initiative called “Katateeb Al Bidoon”, and called on educators to volunteer to teach Bidoon children at The Teachers’ Society’s residence. Several did, and Bidoon children did indeed show up in uniform, lunchboxes in hand, eager to learn anywhere and at any time. But as selfless and noble as this initiative may be, it cannot be denied that these children are receiving an improvised form of education in a place that isolates them from their peers.
In the month of October, various groups protested in front of Kuwait’s Ministry of Education demanding that Bidoon children be allowed to return to school. The most heart-wrenching aspect of the protests was that they took place at 10am, with Bidoon children showing up in their school uniforms, carrying posters, at a time when they should have been sitting in their classrooms, not protesting being denied their universal right to education. Imagine the psychological trauma and confusion this is going to inflict.
Here are some photographs from the protests by Kuwaiti activist Nawaf El Hendal (used with permission):
In my public elementary school, I learned to read and write in both Arabic and English, to count, play the piano and paint, and I learned many of the basic social skills I've needed to get by in my current adult life. These are things that many of us may have taken for granted as children, but as adults, we absolutely cannot underestimate how important they are in shaping individuals into responsible and active citizens. Moreover, we cannot underestimate the inevitable, long-term consequences of over 1,000 children not having access to that essential experience. Not knowing how to write a sentence is in itself a prison sentence.
It is time to stop punishing innocent children and making them pay the price of dirty politics. Schools are meant to be places that help children flourish, feel secure, grow more aware of their unique qualities and endless capabilities. But this year in Kuwait, schools have become places that turn Bidoon children away. It’s time to rectify this transgenerational mistake by legislating inclusive policies, not new means of segregation.