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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Far from home: Qatar's exiled tribe yearn to go back

Expelled and stripped of citizenship: members of Al Ghufran call for right to return

A delegation from Al Ghufran Tribe, one of the biggest tribes in Qatar, staged a protest on Tuesday in front of the United Nations in Geneva. WAM
A delegation from Al Ghufran Tribe, one of the biggest tribes in Qatar, staged a protest on Tuesday in front of the United Nations in Geneva. WAM

Khaznah Al Marri was barely five years old, when, at the stroke of a pen, her tribe was uprooted from Qatar.

The daughter of the Al Ghufran tribe, a people expelled from Qatar in the 1990s, is now one of thousands desperately clamouring for action over their plight.

A small number of the tribe’s members – not more than 20 according to Ms Al Marri - supported former emir Khalifa bin Hammad’s failed effort to get back into power in 1996, just a year after the successful coup by his son, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, father of the current emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

In response, Hamad bin Khalifa expelled the whole tribe, pushing more than 6,000 across the border into the sparse desert tracts of Saudi Arabia. Even the youngest of children were not spared.

The Al Marri family was on vacation at the time of the expulsion, which came even though they were not involved in the political power struggle. They were warned not to return.

“Friends told us to stay in Saudi for a few days until things get calm,” Ms Al Marri said.

What should have been only a few days turned into decades.

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Read more:

Qatari tribe holds sit-in at UN HQ to protest Doha 'crimes'

UN receives letter from Qatari tribe accusing Doha of discrimination

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Three years after the expulsion in 1999, her family’s passports were revoked, Ms Al Marri, her family and thousands of others from their tribe were left stateless.

“Because of 20 people’s mistake, they kicked out more than 6,000 – all of the tribe,” she said. “I don’t know why they took my citizenship – I was five years old.”

“I grew up in the middle of the desert,” said Ms Al Marri, recalling a tough upbringing in exile in the south of Saudi Arabia.

A small desert village called Al Taweila has been her home where she spent most of the past two decades. A far cry from the glitzy villas of Doha, and the world’s wealthiest state per capita.

“I spent three years travelling two hours just to get to high school every day,” she said.

This week, representatives from her Al Ghufran tribe held a number of demonstrations outside the United Nations headquarters in Geneva against the Doha government’s mass expulsion of their people.

On Tuesday they handed a letter into the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet.

The petition detailed the tribe’s systemic discrimination at the hands of the Qatari government.

She tells of friends who have attempted to travel back to Qatar on their passports, only for the documents to be seized on arrival, and the friends left unable to prove their Qatari origins. “They were left in between Saudi and Qatar for many days,” she said.

Now she estimates there are more than 20,000 members of the tribe unable to get on with their lives in Qatar.

Khaznah Al Marri's passport. Three years after their expulsion from Qatar in 1999, her family’s passports were revoked.Courtesy of Khaznah Al Marri
Khaznah Al Marri's passport. Three years after their expulsion from Qatar in 1999, her family’s passports were revoked.Courtesy of Khaznah Al Marri

Before the expulsion, her father was a successful petroleum engineer, and she denies he had any links to the failed counter-coup that precipitated the decades of oppression.

Despite her young age, Ms Al Marri has vivid memories of her five years in Qatar. “I remember my swimming pool outside my house, and my small cat," she told The National. "I remember the dining room where the family would sit and talk – everything was wonderful.”

Yet any anger she has over her current limbo, is tempered by her father’s fondness for their homeland.

“My father is very sensitive about Qatar, when I am angry about being kicked out, he tries to show me the good side of Qatar – he still loves it,” she said.

“He says the people are very nice people, they always had a white heart. He says, maybe they didn’t hear our voices, but if they hear, they will help us.”

Now she is raising two children of her own, five-year-old Khalid has autism. The situation compounds her hardship. “I can’t get him into a good school, or a good hospital.”

“I’ve lived through enough instability, now I have a child who is sick, I don’t want him to live the same way I have lived.”

Though ignored for many years, she insists the Al Ghufran demands can be met if only the Qatari government would show compassion.

Her message to the world?

“I want them to look at the kids, at the women, the people with special needs and give them their rights. They belong to Qatar, and they want to go back to their country,” she said.

“We will keep asking until the last day of their lives”.