I am a Palestinian refugee to Lebanon. Until last week, my travel document—a large, hardback booklet that appears to be from the 70s—was in Arabic and French. In it, my personal details were handwritten. It was always greeted with a bemused face; an attempt, in poor French, to read the details; a statement of “I’ve never seen one of these before”, followed by, “sorry, I’m just going to have to check this”. Only once did I meet an elderly man with clearly a bit of experience who said, “Ah, I’ve seen just three of these before”.
These situations are particularly bemusing at airports. After all, by the time I show up to travel I would already have gone through the intense scrutiny of a visa application process; my latest Schengen visa to Spain took seven weeks from the date of application to come through. (It came the day before I travelled.) What is it about my travel document that provokes these responses? Why should the airport authorities distrust their colleagues’ ability to check my background?
The thought that always enters my mind when this happens is that I am immensely privileged. I had a good education at a private school in Kuwait. I have a car. I’ve just finished my third year of medical school at Lancaster University, where I’m one of two international students in my year. My tuition fees are nearly £30,000 a year and, although I’m ineligible for loans, scholarships or grants, I’m fortunate to have a father who can afford to pay my tuition.
But this privilege disappears when I enter an airport. I’ve had my travel document taken away from the customs officer by a man in a suit, who interrogated me about what I was doing in the UK, while those holding EU/EEA passports waltzed through the electronic gates without worry. When I land in Spain, I watch drunken groups of bachelors walk through passport control, while I am held up. My travel document doesn’t fit in the passport scanner. It’s printed on the wrong paper. The customs officer can’t read it.
There is a disconnect between what people think of when they say “refugee” and what the reality for some refugees is. You know how the stereotype goes: lazy, sexist, racist and dangerous—here to steal your jobs and claim your benefits. But the reality is more prosaic: we are a group of people stuck in limbo, surrounded by invisible walls that restrict what we do and who we can become.
This is particularly true of Palestinian refugees, who hold the dubious honour of being one of two refugee groups (the other being the Sahrawi) who inherit their refugee status from their fathers. I could not inherit Lebanese citizenship from my mother, as many Middle Eastern citizenships can only be inherited from the father. Despite being born in Kuwait, local legal restrictions prevent me from becoming a Kuwaiti citizen. There are generations of people like me, who are “stuck” with refugee status and, like my family, become well-off financially, but poor legally.
Indeed, people I knew in the UK were outraged when they discovered how long my Spanish visa application was taking and wanted to know where they could complain. There is, of course, nowhere they can complain. The number given online for the application centre doesn’t work. The emails are outsourced to a company, whose representatives only speak basic English. The customer satisfaction survey sent after my visa was issued didn’t work.
People abroad have their embassies to help them. Who helps the stateless?
Most countries prioritise their own citizens for university places. Many do not accept foreign students at all, other than in rare circumstances. Others, like the UK, restrict places for foreign applicants. In UK medical schools, the percentage of students that can come from outside of the UK or EU is capped at 7.5%. In bigger medical schools, this translates into about 20 places. At Lancaster Medical School, it was just four places per year, and I was part of the first cohort of international students there since the school decoupled from Liverpool.
My application process was a nightmare. I couldn’t gain medical work experience in Kuwait. The country’s strict privacy laws mean that it is illegal for those not qualified as medical professionals to observe hospital patients. Some of my friends ignored these laws with the help of doctors who snuck them into private clinics. But none of the doctors I knew would allow it. So, I had to convince the notoriously discerning admissions teams that I truly wanted to do medicine, despite not having any experience. I was up against candidates with months and even years of relevant experience.
In fact, I was rejected and took up a place at UCL doing Applied Medical Studies instead. But, on the final day of UCL fresher’s week, and on my birthday, I received an email from Lancaster University saying that a spot had just freed up and that I was on the waiting list. I replied immediately and transferred, but not before having to fly to Glasgow to change my visa.
The question “Where are you from?” is simple for many to answer. Manchester, Liverpool, Lancaster, East London, Athens. Some are born in one city and then move somewhere else, but they, too, can give a concrete answer and often have a strong sense of belonging.
For me, the answer is more complicated. I am a Palestinian refugee to Lebanon, but I was born and grew up in Kuwait. I’ve never been to Palestine—Israel makes that more than a bit difficult—and I have no right to vote anywhere.
Kuwait, I typically explain, felt like “home” while I was growing up, simply because that’s where I spent most of my time and most of the people I knew were there. But Kuwait was no more a home than anywhere else I could have been resident. There is no permanency to this home. Unlike English expatriates who can return to the UK if they so wish, the only place to which I could return is Lebanon.
That is problematic for me as a Palestinian. Lebanon operates a law of reciprocal rights: if a Lebanese citizen can work in a country in a specific job, then a citizen of that country can work in Lebanon in the same job. But Lebanon doesn’t fully recognise Palestine as a country, and so Palestinians in Lebanon struggle to find work and are often forced to live in poorly-run refugee camps and are restricted from pursuing an education. My situation was precarious: if my father had lost his job in Kuwait, my residency would have been invalidated and I would have had to move to Lebanon. I would have lost the privilege of a good education, which brought me where I am now.
I yearn for the stability that citizens of many countries, such as the UK, enjoy. Despite the cliché that immigrants and refugees steal jobs and claim benefits, the idea that one can be out of work, earn benefits and be given a home is a fantasy to me, and most people like me. When people complain about paying £9,000 a year in tuition fees, often with government loans, my thoughts are with my father, who works seven days a week to support me through my degree, support my sister through her PhD, pay rent for multiple houses and help educate my other sister’s children. He continues to fear for losing his job; my father is currently unable to visit my terminally-ill uncle because of this. What I would give to be fully independent, even if that meant becoming indebted to the government.
The mother of one of the students in my year recently applied for a British passport. She had never travelled before and was planning to go to New Zealand for a wedding. After she filled in her application, she was invited for an interview, which does not typically happen unless there is reason for suspicion. They asked her if she had any children (she has three) and whether her daughter had a foreign colleague—an obvious reference to me (I was in some of her photos at the time). They then asked if I had tried to convince her to travel back to my country. The insinuation, it seemed, was that I was trying to radicalize her.
I suspect that the government went through some lengths to connect me to this woman. At that point, we weren’t friends on Facebook, but I wonder whether the government didn’t stalk my page, discovering where I’m from and jumping immediately to the conclusion that I present a threat.
Even the suspicion that you are under state surveillance is jarring. But what troubles me more is that the government chose to inconvenience someone instead of speaking to my medical school or approaching me directly. I should have a right not to live in the knowledge that simply associating with me makes you a target for the government when I have never done anything wrong besides being born in the “wrong” country.
All this, it seems, because of a piece of paper.