I recently met a wonderful family of Bedouin refugees from Kuwait. Harbia and two of her daughters, Maha and Hiyya, greeted me with enormous warmth and welcomed me into their home for a conversation about their lives and how they ended up in the U.S. It felt so comfortable and familiar to sit in the living room of an Arab family, and reminded me fondly of the many house visits I made to Palestinian families in the West Bank.
Like most Arabs, this family exuded hospitality and offered me Arabic coffee, which I readily accepted because I just love the sweetness and cardamom flavor. I also very much enjoyed being around Arabic-speakers, to both test what I know, and listen for words I could recognize. Let’s just say I still have a long way to go before I’ll be able to even somewhat communicate in Arabic.
Harbia sat like the most regal of women I have ever met. She has 9 children, and a beautiful and proud smile. Her sense of humor radiated from within her. Even though we couldn’t communicate directly with words, I could tell when she made a joke, which she did often.
I originally thought I was going to meet a family of Iraqi refugees, and I felt rather nervous about it. I had mentally rehearsed a small speech to express my sincere apology for what my government and military have done to their country, and my gratitude at their willingness to speak to me. So you can imagine my surprise when just a few minutes into the interview, one of the daughters, Maha, tells me they are Bedouin from Kuwait, not Iraqis.
According to Maha who translated for her mother, the Bedouin of Kuwait find themselves in quite a predicament. The Kuwaiti government mostly does not give citizenship to its Bedouin, also known as Bidoon, which means “without” or “without citizenship.” Thus they find themselves without a national sense of belonging in the land they were born in, and denied human rights which impact all areas of their lives. This created many problems for their family, ultimately causing them to seek refugee status in the U.S.
While Maha says the Kuwaiti government did not interfere with their lives or try to force them out of the towns and areas the Bedouin inhabit in Kuwait, it still left them in a difficult situation; without citizenship and a passport, Harbia’s family could not travel outside of Kuwait. The family had to purchase Iraqi passports to travel from Kuwait to Jordan, where they applied to become refugees.
According to Refugees International, the Bedouin of Kuwait are not given a birth certificate at birth. It’s also difficult for the Bedouin to work and get an education in Kuwait. Maha told me that Jordan is the only Middle Eastern country that allows the Bedouin to work and pursue education.
Maha says her father was a soldier and served in the Kuwaiti army during the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Referring to the military service of the Bedouin, Maha said “all Bedouin save Kuwait.” Maha says the government told the Bedouin soldiers “you are Kuwaiti,” giving them great hope that their military service would translate into citizenship and all the rights that go along with it. “So we saved Kuwait and nothing,” Maha said. The Bedouin who served were never given citizenship after their military service.
When asked how they feel about being in the United States, Maha said they feel like “they start a new life.” All of their faces lit up when they talked about being citizens and finally belonging somewhere. Maha said only the little sister could speak English when the family arrived in the U.S., and she had to translate everything for the rest of the family. Now Maha, her sister Hiyya and the rest of the children can speak English quite well. They all took classes at Pima Community College.
However, the family faced another huge obstacle upon their arrival. The first year they were here, Harbia got sick and cried a lot because her son Mohammed remained in Jordan until about 11 months ago. Maha told me it was because of his name. Apparently the name “Mohammed” carries a stigma with it, and Harbia’s son was held behind the rest of the family until he passed an extra, heavy-duty security clearance. Harbia feels ecstatic to have Mohammed here now – her face radiated the light and love that only a mother’s face could show for her children when she spoke about him.
Mohammed made his grand entrance just as we were wrapping up our conversation. He walked into the room with his thin, tall frame, smokey eyes, and honey-colored curly hair carrying a bag of Kentucky fried chicken. Yup, I thought to myself. This family is just as American as the rest of us. We may all come from different places, but that’s what makes this country so endearing.