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Kuwaiti Bidoons went on hunger strike for 19 days. Has anything changed?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In a hot dirt yard outside a police station in Kuwait, activists have set up camp. They spent nearly three weeks on hunger strike, asking the Kuwaiti government for citizenship, led by a 50-year-old computer engineer named Mohammad Bargash (ph).

MOHAMMAD BARGASH: (Speaking Arabic).

SHAPIRO: He says, "the government limits our right to an education, to health care, to an identity, to dignity."

Although Bargash has lived in Kuwait his whole life, he, his wife and seven children are officially stateless. The term is Bidoon, which means without.

BARGASH: (Speaking Arabic).

SHAPIRO: "The government is ignoring us," he says. "No one cares. No one is giving us a solution."

That's why he started his hunger strike, and other activists followed until there were six of them.

BARGASH: (Speaking Arabic).

SHAPIRO: He says it's a tragedy that Kuwait is a rich country that pretends it supports human rights. Kuwaiti citizens benefit from generous social spending made possible by the government's oil wealth. But there are an estimated 100,000 or more Bidoon people in Kuwait who cannot access those benefits. Many have lived in Kuwait their entire lives. Just today, Bargash had his first meeting with Kuwaiti political leaders, and he says he's putting the hunger strike on pause in hopes of a breakthrough.

Zahra Marwan supports this protest. She was born stateless, but her family managed to leave Kuwait when she was a child. She became a U.S. citizen and an illustrator and children's book author. One of those books tells her own story.

ZAHRA MARWAN: I was born stateless in Kuwait, in spite of my mom being a citizen. I was born stateless because my dad was born stateless because his dad didn't register in the 1940s.

SHAPIRO: You say his dad didn't register in the 1940s. We're going to need a bit of history here. Explain what happened.

MARWAN: Yeah. So three of my grandparents were Kuwaiti citizens, and only one wasn't. Citizenship was a new concept when it was introduced in Kuwait, and a lot of people didn't really see the importance of it since migration was so fluid. Both of my parents' families are from a larger historic migration of Southwest Iranians who went into the Arab Gulf in the early 1900s to work as sea laborers. So both sides of my families are from the same exact background, community and historic neighborhood, yet my mom's family are officially Kuwaiti, and my dad's undefined.

SHAPIRO: And what's incredible is that that decision that people made generations ago ripples down to folks living in Kuwait today.

MARWAN: Yeah. There's an argument over there that stateless people should go back to their countries of origin. But when I look at some of my cousins now, what business do they have going back to a country that our great-grandparents left 120 years ago?

SHAPIRO: Would you ever want Kuwaiti citizenship?

MARWAN: I think so, yes, just to maybe put it on my dad's grave.

SHAPIRO: How long ago did he die?

MARWAN: My father passed away in 2016. And I feel like my parents always planned on returning to Kuwait after we became citizens, which is counter to the narrative of stateless people over there.

SHAPIRO: How did he think of himself? Did he think of himself as Kuwaiti, even if he didn't have a piece of paper saying as much?

MARWAN: Yes. I feel like there are so many people like my family where my dad was Kuwaiti in speech, dress and culture. And he wanted to be buried among our family, yet two years after his burial, there was a warrant out for his arrest for not renewing his foreigner's visa from the grave.

SHAPIRO: I'm sorry, explain that detail. That sounds Orwellian. He needed a foreigner's visa his whole life, even though he was born and raised in Kuwait.

MARWAN: That's right. People are born in Kuwait as illegal residents now, and they don't get birth or death certificates or aren't allowed to marry or go to public school or leave the country, really, because no other country will accept them.

SHAPIRO: Do you remember how old you were when you learned the term Bidoon and understood what it meant for your life?

MARWAN: I think it came in waves. When I saw our cards here and it said birth place, Kuwait, nationality undefined, I didn't know what that meant. And my parents weren't very open about explaining what that meant. So it took me a long time to understand that even though I think of myself as Kuwaiti the way my parents thought of themselves as Kuwaiti, that people over there didn't see me in the same light.

SHAPIRO: In the U.S., people talk about undocumented immigrants or illegal immigrants - choose your phrase. Is this similar, or is this a little bit deeper?

MARWAN: I think a little bit deeper in that we have no citizenship in any country. I think in the 1960s, my dad tried to say he was Iranian and get papers and was denied that, too. So where can you belong if no government accepts you?

SHAPIRO: Do you imagine what your life would have been like if your family had not left Kuwait?

MARWAN: When I do, I imagine my life had I just received my rights. But when I sat with my Uncle Ahmed recently a few years ago at the fish market, he told me, I know your life isn't easy over there, but it's better than what it would have been over here. So I keep that in mind all the time.

SHAPIRO: Zahra Marwan is a children's book author and illustrator based in New Mexico. Thank you for talking with us.

MARWAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.