Kuwait Squeezes Out Palestinians

Policy to rid nation of once-valued residents strikes at their jobs, education, sense of security

'I AM disgusted with the day I was born here."Standing in line for the exit visa that he needed to leave the country, 24-year-old Said was bitter. Jobless and stripped of his residence permit, he had reached a conclusion shared by a fast-growing number of his fellow Palestinians: He had no future in Kuwait. For the Kuwaiti government has made it clear that the Palestinian community, once 400,000 strong, is no longer welcome. Accused of sometimes collaborating with the Iraqi occupation, and suffering from the Palestine Liberation Organization's refusal to condemn Saddam Hussein's invasion, Palestinians say life is becoming impossible for them. "Most Kuwaitis will say they know two or three good Palestinians, but they think that these are the only ones in the country and that all the rest are bad," complains Bassam Qasrawi, head of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. "No one wants to believe that there are good Palestinians." A senior Kuwaiti government official illustrates Dr. Qasrawi's point. "What we Kuwaitis cannot forget," he says, "is that this group of people cannot be trusted." Nearly a quarter of a million Palestinians fled Kuwait when the Iraqis invaded and during the seven-month occupation. Others have left since coalition troops recaptured the country, and the estimated 100,000 who are still here have been given a deadline, Nov. 16. Unless a Palestinian can find a Kuwaiti sponsor to offer him a job and support his residence application by that date, he or she will have to be out of Kuwait, the government has announced. New residence and labor laws, expected to further complicate Palestinians' lives, are due to be promulgated later this year, but the government's intentions are already clear. None of the Palestinians who fled the country have been allowed to return, not even to sell their belongings, empty their bank accounts, or collect their severance pay. Nor have any of the tens of thousands of Palestinians who used to work in government ministries or state-owned enterprises been given their jobs back, leaving them without any earnings since the end of February. Even Palestinian doctors, nurses, and employees at the Ministry of Water and Electricity - who were specially asked by the exiled Kuwaiti government to go on working during the occupation - have not been rehired. Nor have they been paid for the work they did, while their Kuwaiti colleagues have been given seven months of back-pay, whether or not they stuck to their jobs. Qasrawi, for example, stayed on to care for the 600 mentally and physically handicapped patients at his institute, but says he has been paid nothing even for his work since Kuwait's liberation four months ago, except a $1,800 loan. "The hospital administrator says I am not employed, that my contract was broken by abnormal circumstances last Aug. 2," when the Iraqis invaded, Qasrawi explains. "It is hard to understand how people who were asked by the government to stay at work can be considered not to be employed." Qasrawi's circumstances mirror those of thousands of his compatriots, most of whom have given up hope that the government will employ them again, but who are waiting for the severance pay they are owed. In an added complication, the Education Ministry has announced it will not allow any child who registered for class under the Iraqis to attend a state-run school in the future, and it has withdrawn the 50 percent subsidy it used to pay to private Palestinian-run schools. Palestinian parents, most of whom sent their children to school during the occupation, say they are left with little option but to leave the country. Even those Palestinians who have been offered their old jobs in the private sector back are finding Kuwait an uncomfortable place to live, at the very least. Every Palestinian has his or her own tale of insult, humiliation, or intimidation at the hands of Kuwaitis since the Iraqis fled. Many are simply fearful for their safety. An estimated 2,000 are currently in detention, nearly a thousand have been deported, and foreign diplomats estimate that around 100 were killed by vigilante groups or Army soldiers in the wake of the coalition victory, human rights activists say. "Palestinians feel very much like American blacks felt in the 1950s," says one Western diplomat. "This is not a hospitable place for them to be." Nor have Kuwaiti opposition groups done much to defend the Palestinians from wholesale government vengeance. "If you raise this issue you are in the position of forgiving those who did wrong to us," says Abdullah Nibari, spokesman for the Democratic Forum, the most vocal of the secular opposition groups. "This could be misinterpreted and the government could make use of it." Left defenseless, Palestinians feel they have few options to choose from. "Though deep inside everyone wants to stay, there's a common feeling amongst us that we have to go," says one Palestinian intellectual, who asked not to be identified. The Palestinians' departure would close a 50-year chapter of deep involvement in Kuwaiti affairs, during which they have come to play a central role in many sectors of the economy. As doctors and engineers, teachers and administrators, lawyers and traders, they have had a profound influence on Kuwaiti life - more profound perhaps than the Kuwaitis have felt comfortable with. "They have never really known how to handle the role that Palestinians played in Kuwait," says the Western diplomat. "Now they see this as an opportunity to start anew." It is still unclear how the government plans to run the country without help from the Palestinians, but Kuwaitis say they expect an influx of technicians and skilled staff from Egypt. At the same time, a "handful of essential Palestinians, perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 will be left," a European diplomat predicts. "With time the Kuwaitis will understand that they cannot run the country without any Palestinians at all, but they will have to find the equilibrium along the way," adds the first diplomat. Meanwhile, those whose services are no longer required are again being uprooted. Most, carrying Jordanian passports, say they will move to Amman, but many younger people hope to emigrate to the United States, Canada, or Australia. Waiting for his exit visa, Said's anger at being made a refugee by an Arab government boils over. "I want to go anywhere," he says, "any other country. Just so long as it's not an Arab country."

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