One morning, Dad drove my sisters and I to a new school. We walked into that old, residential building and met Mrs. Ayman, a British lady with a calm disposition and a plain black abaya.
She didn’t seem to mind that we didn’t have our identity documents and other paperwork that’s required of registering students all over the country. One document we could submit was a vaccination record with a list of diseases we’d be immune to. But we hadn’t been immunized from the bug of the system at large, and I suspected we’d eventually suffer for that.
But I buried my fears and looked forward to another chance to climb up a school’s social hierarchy. Red Sea International School* was a new institution at the time though, and I think they discouraged my dad and I from getting near what would be my classroom because they didn’t want us to see how many kids were in there.
That grade had a total of three girls—that’s how many sisters I have. When I first joined those girls in that mostly empty classroom, I imagined having other kids who couldn't afford to go to school join us in the back.
It felt like such a waste to me that there were many children who couldn’t go to school for reasons like having incomplete paperwork, and here we have teachers wasting their breath teaching just four girls.
Though I didn’t get to live out the ‘popular girl’ fantasy I wanted since my days in Al-Hejaz International School, I got something better: a second pair of sisters. We formed a safe, little bubble and navigated those tricky preteen years together.
All four of us were born in Saudi Arabia, but they spoke Urdu and often visited their parents’ birthplace, Pakistan. Unlike me, they managed to get passports which allowed them to make such visits. The kingdom didn’t grant birthright citizenship, so every newborn often had to have their passports issued from one of their parents’ birthplaces to make travel possible.
Now, the school was mainly run by members of the Pakistani diaspora, so there were many cultural elements from the Indian subcontinent on display.
Our uniform reflected the traditional shawal-kamees combination with its light blue kamees, a white shawal, and a white shawl which thankfully helped me cover my newly blossoming chest.
On our field trips, I watched the girls sing and dance to lively Indian songs, and though Urdu classes were provided in our curriculum, the only Urdu I still remember are the insults I picked up while the girls mocked each other.
One major difference we had was our attitude to our birthplace. Dad had been telling me about the country he left because of a civil war for as long as I could remember. So, I always treated my birthplace like a temporary station or a transit stop: I didn’t allow myself to make roots there. I feel like that attitude helped me a lot when the kingdom eventually made their existing laws even more difficult to follow, driving out many foreign-born citizens and their children.
But at the time, some of my classmates talked about the possibility of being buried in Makkah. All of them were Muslims, so living in Saudi Arabia wasn’t just an economic decision for them and their families—they felt lucky to inhabit the Land of the Two Holy Mosques. Some of the students there lived in Mecca, Islam’s holiest city, and had to take two-hour-long commutes to attend an international school like ours.
So, it was ironic that as the only Arabic-speaking girl in class, I was the only one who didn’t need the English translations they read during their recitation practice in their Qur’an lessons. Until then, I didn’t know that somebody could master reading a language without understanding it. A couple of those girls were religious and seemed to enjoy learning about their faith in school. That’s why I couldn’t have imagined them planning what they did for me one morning.
That day was one of the few times I’d ever been truly surprised.
They’d been cold to me all morning, and I started wondering what happened.
Did I say something I wasn’t supposed to? Was there some sort of rumor spreading about me?
I thought we were beyond that stage, that if I had done something wrong they would have talked to me about it directly.
I couldn’t even point a finger at anything they did. But we had gotten to know each other so well over the past year that I could tell when something wasn't right. It was in their tone, their mannerism, and everything they didn't word out.
Things got almost unbearable around lunch break when I went to the washroom and tried to get back to the classroom. Ahlam, one of the newer girls, was getting in my way. She’s usually the most laid-back, dreamy girl in class. All of a sudden, she was chatty and confrontational. What’s going on? What does she want from me today?
I wanted to get past her to have my lunch, but at some point, I realized she was physically trying to block me from going any further. Then all of a sudden, she dropped her act and let me into the classroom.
Everybody was there. Even our class teacher, Ms. Jannah, was in on it. At some point, she was teaching us Islamic Studies and I’m pretty sure I heard it’s not lawful in Islam to celebrate any other occasion apart from the two Eids*. But they celebrated a birthday for me!
If I had a clue that they could do this, I would have caught on to it early on. They told me that they agreed to make me feel bad throughout the day as a buildup to the grand surprise. I never heard of the bad treatment strategy, but the act worked. After an inexplicably strange day, any positive ending would make one ecstatic.
I imagined them planning everything behind my back, buying the cake, and gathering everybody, and I felt like I was being celebrated as a person—it felt like I mattered there.
But our little bubble burst in 2010. At least it did for me.
I had to leave school because of fees issues and the fact that my legal paperwork was still incomplete. At first, I was grateful for the break: the British curriculum we followed was taking a toll on me. But the more time passed, the more I was worried about being permanently left behind my friends.
I was mad at the local system which enabled this, and was even more frustrated that there wasn’t just one bad guy I could hold accountable for my lost time.
Now, here’s the thing about the kafala system, under which migrants and their offspring operated. The word kafala originally referred to the adoption of children in Islamic law. But after discovering those massive oil reserves in the early 1900s, the Saudis wanted help to catch up with the ‘developed world’ using their newly acquired wealth. At the same time, they wanted to keep said wealth within their existing population. So, some of them agreed to expand the definition of the word kafeel to mean anybody who ‘sponsors’ a migrant worker, and the kafala system was set up to allow regular Saudi citizens to bring any willing migrant from abroad.
Then, the Saudis invited the millions of construction workers who would build air-conditioned cities in their deserts, the housemaids who’d clean up their new homes and raise their children, the teachers who would teach in their private schools, the doctors and nurses who’d treat them and so many others.
This kingdom wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for the millions of skilled and unskilled migrants who had come from all over the world and worked there for the past several decades. Many expatriates-especially Muslims-made a home out of the cities they inhabited even though Saudi law doesn’t permit them to own land or houses.
And over the years, many kafeels had hosted their workers well. Some of them even looked after their employees’ children, and treated them like a host family would.
The problem is that with the way the system is set up, the expatriate could easily be exploited or abused with little repercussions for their kafeel.
For example, many kafeels had extorted their migrant workers for extra money just to do the things they’re legally obliged to do as their kafeel, like renew their and their family’s identification documents. Migrants often put up with such treatment because the legal documents they need to exist in the kingdom are in their kafeel’s hands and if they do anything that results in their kafeel dropping them, they could lose that legal status—and it’s really difficult to get that status back.
Without updated legal documents, an expatriate’s children couldn’t go to school, and it becomes extremely difficult to survive in the country. It makes it hard to even leave. That’s kind of what happened to us. We were the collateral of a system that wasn’t built to protect us.
My dad had been trying to fix our documents for years, but he couldn’t even go to the government authorities to argue his case. So many times, I wanted to just show up wherever those papers were made and fight for myself. I didn’t want to be just a name under dad’s documents, a child under his care. I had an interrupted education to continue, and places to be after that. I knew I would never work, marry or have kids of my own in the country: I couldn’t make anyone else go through what I did. But I also knew that if I go anywhere else in the world, I’d just be another ‘unskilled immigrant’ until I could graduate high school and have a degree to show for. I hated that my drive and talent were meaningless if it didn’t come with relevant documents too, be it a degree, a birth certificate, an I.D., a good passport, etc, etc.
And even though I knew it could get our school in legal trouble, I was resentful that our school administration didn’t fight for some of their best students. I thought: why couldn’t they hide our documents whenever the Ministry of Education shows up for their routine checkups? Why did they have to follow ‘the rules’ so strictly?
Eventually, somebody would make up the rumor that we quietly left for our dad’s home country.
And sometimes it hurt me that some of my friends hadn’t called to confirm the rumors of our leaving. But I knew better than to blame them for it: I had shut them out. I didn't want to explain what was happening—I couldn't bring myself to accept it myself. I hated that with all my determination, grades that placed me at the top of the class, and good speech writing skills, I couldn't argue my way out of that problem.
This beast was bigger than me, and it was only going to get more ferocious in the coming years.
Still, I'll never forget my 13th birthday party and the people behind it.
A few months ago, I was elated to have received a surprise Telegram message from Ameera. She had recently finished a degree in engineering in Pakistan and was engaged to be married. The land we were born had ejected us eventually, and we hadn't seen each other in years.
But I recognized that delightful babyface in an instant. And for a moment, it was like we were talking in a suspended reality from 2009, basking in the warmth of our bubble again.
It's Win-tuh, kind of like how British folks say winter. Architect, storyteller, & cat-mom from Ethiopia. Read more of my stories here.