Kuwait City: A year since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost everybody’s life has been affected, whether in small or drastic ways. Each person has a story to tell. Some stories reached millions, while some remained unheard.
In an effort to bring out the stories hidden in the shadows, en.v, a non-profit organisation working towards fostering a more compassionate and innovative society by mobilising and connecting change-makers, launched a project known as Neighbourhood Tales: Kuwait Under Lockdown to document the experience of people living in Kuwait during the pandemic.
“One of our priorities was to highlight the more invisible and unknown stories of the pandemic, with a focus on the communities that were being affected the most. We wanted to challenge these assumptions with a more human-centric and dignified collection of first-hand stories from people across different neighbourhoods, socioeconomic groups and cultures, not from a place of sympathy but opportunity,” Layan Al Dabt, Programs Coordinator at en.v and project lead, told Gulf News.
Born in the pandemic
Neighbourhood Tales was born in April 2020, during the early stages of the pandemic, and continued to grow in the past year. The en.v team, along with collaborators, worked towards collecting stories from 30 individuals from all walks of life which were then translated, transcribed and shared (in part) with the public.
These stories have been shared with Gulf News, and highlight some of the struggles that community members have endured during the pandemic. Each person’s name has been changed to protect their identity.
While everyone’s struggle during the pandemic differs, Al Dabat explained that, “There are many underlying themes that you can identify and pull from not only in the collection, but in each interview - some which kept re-emerging included the idea of home and belonging, and the many ways in which that is defined and also has shifted since the pandemic, with heightened anti-expat discourse, loss of jobs and wages, bans and shifts in travel policies; faith, as a really strong driving force and determining factor in people’s management of their own emotional wellbeing and response, as people navigated anxieties about the future, were separated from their families, and were struggling with access.”
With almost everybody having a story to tell about the pandemic, this series is focused on the impact that the past year has had on expats living in Kuwait and to amplify their experiences.
As Kuwait is witnessing a rise in xenophobic rhetoric and policies, many expats have felt that they are no longer welcome in the country.
The negative discourse towards expats had entered the realm of legislation and governmental decisions, with several new laws being put in place to address the demographic imbalance, where non-Kuwaitis make up 70 per cent of the population, and several lawmakers and governmental officials want to “reduce the number of expats”. From banning the renewal of residency permits for expats above the age of 60 who hold a high school degree or halting the issuing of new visas, many expats are being affected by these laws, thus forcing them to leave.
Dia and Hamza spoke of feeling unwelcome in Kuwait due to various factors and they are not alone. In the past year, around 134,000 expats left Kuwait, bringing the total number of non-Kuwaitis to 3.2 million, a 4 per cent decrease compared to the year before.
As the pandemic has created physical barriers between people, many expats are reconsidering their long-term status in Kuwait as they stay away from their families and loved ones due to the ongoing travel restrictions and lockdowns.
On August 1, a few hours after Kuwait reopened its airport for commercial travel following a five-month halt, a travel ban was imposed on passengers arriving from 31 countries (the list later grew to 35 countries as new countries were added).
The stories shared by Dia, Hamza, Meena and Hussein are not one-off stories and probably sound familiar because many people have faced similar situations. While the stories are about people living in Kuwait, the concept of belonging and separation are trending themes worldwide and have been exacerbated during the pandemic forcing many people to reconsider where they call “home”.