by Natacha Yazbeck
Wed Nov 24, 2010
FAOUR, Lebanon (AFP) – Hiam Abu Ragheb has big dreams for her 19-month-old triplets despite being a Bedouin without papers in Lebanon. Her sons will be doctors -- Bahaa a gynaecologist and Saad a surgeon -- and her daughter Nazek will be a lawyer or journalist.
But little Bahaa, Saad and Nazek, namesakes of members of Lebanon's Hariri dynasty -- Saad Hariri is now prime minister -- might not even make it through school. They have no identity papers.
The Abu Raghebs belong to the Bedouin Huruq tribe and are among more than 100,000 Arab Bedouins who live in eastern Lebanon, many of whom have been fighting for years to be recognized by the state as citizens.
Once a migrant community that lived off herding and agriculture, Lebanon's Bedouins gave up their traditional nomadic lifestyle by the mid-20th century and settled in the country's east where they remain today, battling poverty, state neglect and discrimination.
"This is a human rights crisis of the first order," said anthropologist Hiba Morcos, who is researching citizenship among Lebanon's Bedouin community for her doctoral dissertation at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
"Denying them citizenship in turn is blocking their access to political participation, education and healthcare," Morcos told AFP.
The country's only nationality law dates back to 1925 -- before Lebanon was even an independent state -- and stipulates that citizenship be granted to all descendants of men who lived in what is now Lebanon in 1914, under the Ottoman Empire.
Lebanon's last census was conducted in 1932 under the French mandate, prior to the founding of the modern state. Only those who registered that year were declared Lebanese, allowing their descendants to inherit citizenship.
While some Bedouins registered as Lebanese at the time, many failed to come forth.
"To the Bedouins back then, they were pastoralists and their relation was to the land and not to the newly formed state, and especially not to French foreign rule" which ended with Lebanon's independence in 1943, said Morcos.
Yet as Lebanon struggled with seemingly endless political problems and violence, the plight of Bedouins to secure citizenship in subsequent years was continuously brushed aside.
Today, Bedouins continue to struggle with that legacy, many of them risking arrest for not having identity papers.
A mere two-hour drive from the capital Beirut, the scars of poverty and neglect are unmistakable in Hiam's village of Faour -- which does not even appear on the map and where conditions are as dire as those in the country's renowned Palestinian refugee camps.
Children play with scrap metal in dirt alleyways, many homes have no electricity, and full-grown men can be seen during the day sitting outside bare concrete homes sipping tea and smoking cigarettes.
"Our people stopped migrating more than 30 years ago. We built houses. We speak the Lebanese dialect. This little village is 62-years-old," said Hiam's sister Nada, who married a Lebanese citizen.
"Things have changed. Our girls go to school and our traditional dress and tattooing have faded away," added Nada, dressed in jeans and a long tunic.
"The plight of our people is like that of the Palestinians -- but we are Lebanese. We cannot work, and the problem grows as we pass this struggle on to our children and grandchildren."
The interior ministry did not respond to AFP requests for input on this story.
In 1994, the Lebanese state passed a hotly contested decree under which Bedouins could be granted citizenship.
But bureaucracy, government disorganisation, local politics and negligence meant many were denied nationality and some were left in surreal situations where certain members of a single family were granted citizenship while others were left with green laminated laissez-passer papers.
Like the Abu Raghebs, Hussein Abu Samra belongs to the Huruq tribe.
He has two wives and 14 children. Only four of his children have Lebanese citizenship. The remaining 10 have laissez-passer papers that merely shield them from arrest and deportation.
Abu Samra's ancestors have lived near the eastern Bekaa Valley for generations, tilling the soil that he says ties him inextricably to Lebanon.
"We have lived on this land since my great-grandfather was born, and probably before," said the 56-year-old seasonal worker who wears the traditional red-and-white chequered headdress of the Bekaa.
"I have made countless trips to the interior ministry since 1994 and only managed to get citizenship for my four youngest children," he added. "We have fought back, MPs have heard us out and then there is no result.
"I don't have the money -- or the energy -- for this anymore."
Hiam Abu Ragheb shares his feelings.
"I'm not going to cry over spilled milk -- what's done is done, and I can't turn back time and say I wish I had gotten an education," said the 34-year-old.
"But the world is changing, and I feel like I am failing my children," she added.
"All I want is for them to get an education and live a better life."