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NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When she was a schoolgirl in Kuwait, Mona Kareem would ask her parents why she didn't have a passport and why they never left the country to visit relatives.
Kareem, 26, and her family are bedoons, from the Arabic bedoun jinsiyya, meaning "without nationality" or stateless. Like many bedoons, they are descendants of the nomadic Bedouin tribes which for centuries roamed freely with their animals across what now is Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.
Many bedoons fell through the cracks when Kuwait became independent in 1961. Some did not apply for citizenship because they did not know how important it would become. Others were illiterate or could not produce documents.
Kareem said her family filed for citizenship, but never heard back from authorities.
For years bedoons enjoyed most of the rights of Kuwait citizens and Kareem's parents were able to lead a somewhat normal life but in 1986 the government stripped them of basic rights, making life far harder for Kareem and her generation and with no resolution in sight.
"Being stateless is very humiliating ... because you feel rejected," Kareem, dressed casually in jeans, said over coffee in an interview at the Thomson Reuters Foundation office in New York City.
"When you're meeting people every day who feel that there's something wrong about your identity ... it feels like bullying."
For some time when Kareem was growing up, her parents didn't tell her that belonging to her tribe meant having virtually no rights in Kuwait, the country of her birth.
Bedoons - who are among an estimated 10 million stateless people worldwide - don't have access to the same level of education or healthcare granted to Kuwaiti citizens, and cannot get married or register newborn children, Kareem said.
"There was a stigma, there was a stereotype," Kareem said as the first global forum on statelessness was held this week in The Hague in the Netherlands. “People would refrain from saying they were stateless."
Kareem was born and raised in Kuwait, but her classmates and even her teachers seemed to think she didn’t belong there. She was bullied at middle school and high school. She was constantly asked how anyone could be stateless.
No one knows the exact number of Kuwaiti bedoons but U.N. refugee agency UNHCR has estimated there are between 93,000 and 120,000 while some NGO groups put the figure as high as 140,000, according to a U.S. State Department report in March.
Kareem's break came when she earned a scholarship to a private university in the United States, taking her away from the country where she was born but was not acknowledged.
In 2011, Kareem arrived in the United States on a student visa to study at Binghamton University in upstate New York where she is completing a PhD in comparative literature.
She has a New York State driver’s license for basic ID but she traveled to the United States on a special passport issued by Kuwait’s Ministry of Interior Affairs to a limited number of bedoons. Under nationality, it reads 'non-identified'.
This type of identification paper is not recognized in many countries in the European Union and in Gulf states, Kareem said, so the United States was the obvious choice as a destination for her education.
Her passport expired shortly after she settled in New York and the Kuwaiti embassy refused to renew it saying that it isn't responsible for bedoons. She hasn't seen her family for three years.
Kuwait's embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to a request for comment.
One of the most unpleasant memories Kareem has is one that stems from being both stateless and a woman in Kuwait.
Kuwaiti roads are dotted with police checkpoints and like most Kuwaitis, Kareem was often stopped and questioned.
But being a woman with no recognized identity and virtually no right to protest made her an easy target for abuse.
"We would get stopped and harassed verbally, they (police officers) would make fun of us ... it reached a point where they would touch you," she said.
Currently in the United States without a passport and with her student visa soon expiring, Kareem's best hope to remain in the country is to be granted asylum.
She filed a request over two years ago and is awaiting a response but she doubts her application will be successful. Kareem is well known to Kuwaiti authorities because of her activism. She runs Bedoon Rights, a website documenting human rights abuses suffered by Kuwait’s stateless community.
Because of her activism, Kareem and her family were interrogated by Kuwaiti authorities on more than one occasion, she said.
"As a single political case, you're just too much of a headache (for U.S. authorities)," Kareem said. "I have to answer questions from my mother and father about my return, when they will be able to see me ... I don’t have answers for them. I have to accept the reality."
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith