LONDON, Aug 23 (AlertNet) - For years after he left his native Kuwait, Mohamed Alenezi had nightmares about checkpoints and would wake up terrified the police were chasing him.
A religious man, Alenezi had not broken any law. His crime was of being an illegal immigrant in the land of his forebears, but without ties to any other country -- stateless.
On Thursday, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR will launch an international campaign to highlight the plight of millions of people not considered nationals by any country.
Being stateless is like being “between the earth and the sky,” said Alenezi, 42, now a British citizen.
“You are here and not here,” he said in London, where he lives with his wife and seven children and works as an Arabic teacher.
“You are here as a human being, but you don’t have an identity. Without an identity, without a nationality you cannot do anything. No one will respect you or deal with you.”
Alenezi’s family are bedouns, from the Arabic “bedoun jinsiyya” meaning “without nationality.” Like many bedouns, they are descendants of nomadic Bedouin tribes which had for centuries roamed freely with their animals across what is now Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.
Many bedouns 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.
“After independence my tribe stayed in the desert in Kuwait. The government offered them nationality but they did not understand the meaning of nationality because they knew each other by tribes and families,” he told AlertNet, a humanitarian news site run by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“They weren’t used to carrying papers and documents or ID cards. All they carried was their clothes.”
No one knows how many Kuwaiti bedouns there are but estimates range from 93,000 to 180,000 inside the country and possibly 100,000 outside.
Until the mid-1980s the bedouns were treated as citizens, Alenezi said. But by the time he left school in 1986, the government had started stripping them of basic rights. He was not allowed to go to university to study medicine, and he was turned down for jobs in the military, police and media.
“They told me they couldn’t take me because I was a bedoun,” he said. “I was accepted by universities in Jordan and the UAE, but Kuwait wouldn’t give me a passport.”
Rights groups say the fact the bedouns were included in the 1965 census indicates Kuwait considered them citizens at that time.
“In the beginning when we were Bedouin they used to call us ‘Kuwaiti’,” Alenezi said.
“Then they changed it to ‘Kuwaiti from the Desert’, then ‘Bedoun’. After the Gulf War they changed it to ‘Unspecific Nationality’ and since ‘96 they have called us ‘Illegal Residents’.”
The Kuwait government says the bedouns are nationals of other countries. But rights groups say the vast majority are not considered nationals by any other state.
Many bedouns have served in Kuwait’s armed forces. When Iraq invaded in 1990, Alenezi’s brother, who was in the Navy, was captured as a prisoner of war.
But there was no hero’s welcome when he returned home after Kuwait’s liberation in 1991. Like other bedouns he was sacked from the military.
Many people, bedouns and Kuwaitis alike, fled the country during Iraq’s occupation but the bedouns were barred from returning after the war. Alenezi’s parents were among those who ended up stranded behind the Iraqi border.
Alenezi left Kuwait to join his parents and later moved to Jordan. With no passport of his own he resorted to buying a false Yemeni passport to travel to Europe.
‘KUWAITI UNTIL DEATH’
Alenezi never intended to become a champion for his people. But he set up the Kuwaiti Bidoons Movement in 2005 after a London-based Arabic TV station asked him to speak about their plight and the emails started flooding in.
“The letters didn’t just shock me, they turned my hair white because of the suffering. People didn’t have food. When they were sick they had no treatment. They were dying,” he said.
Alenezi said people with cancer are refused treatment and some bedouns resort to selling their blood for cash. The ban on schooling has rendered a generation illiterate and many children work.
“They sell food or tissues on the street. They don’t have school, they come from big families where no one is allowed to work and they need to pay for rent and food,” he added.
Alenezi has taken his campaign to the United Nations where he hopes someone will champion the cause. He says the revolutions sweeping the Arab world should help the bedouns seek their rights.
“We are not looking to change the regime, we just think it is a good chance to highlight the issue,” he said. “The eyes of the world are on the Middle East.”
The government promised limited reforms earlier this year, but Alenezi says he will not rest until all bedouns have full citizenship. “This issue is my day and my night,” he said.
The day he received British citizenship was a bittersweet one.
“When the official said you now have all the rights of a British citizen I was thinking of Kuwait. Here I have all the rights, even to be a prime minister,” he said. “It made me feel quite sad about my country.”
Alenezi is grateful to the United Kingdom for providing his children with a future, but he will never feel it is his real home. Kuwait may have disowned him, but that won’t change how he sees himself.
“I‘m Kuwaiti until death; in my blood, in my feelings, in my dreams,” he said. “Even if they won’t let me be a Kuwaiti citizen.”
(AlertNet is a global humanitarian news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation. Visit www.trust.org/alertnet)
Reporting By Emma Batha; Editing by Katie Nguyen and Sonya Hepinstall