While I was in Jeddah last month I received a telephone call from a young woman. She was timid, nervous, upset and desperate. She was a stranger, but her story touched me as it should touch all women.
This young woman had been attending medical school in Saudi Arabia and was in her fourth year when her father died. As her sole benefactor her father had gone to great lengths to ensure that her tuition was paid. He saved his money from the income of his job and apparently had several other sources of income from business acquaintances that helped fund his daughter’s education. As customary, he spared her the details of the source of her tuition so she could maintain her dignity
and focus on her studies.
When the father died, the daughter was left without parents or any male family members. She no longer had the money to continue her education and the medical school suspended her studies and asked to leave campus. The Ministry of Higher Education turned down her requests for a scholarship.
My initial reaction was that this was impossible. How could an intelligent, well-spoken and committed Saudi woman be denied a medical degree in a country where there are so few Saudi physicians, let alone female doctors? The Saudi medical community recruits hundreds of foreign doctors to fill its ranks, but snubs a medical student in its own backyard. Surely, a private scholarship would be available to her.
But the crux of her problem soon revealed itself. After further questioning, I discovered this desperate woman was not a Saudi citizen. Her mother was Egyptian and her father originated from a small African country. Yet everything about her -- from her demeanor, language, tone and even manners -- shouted that she was Saudi. She was born in Saudi Arabia, and knows no other country and speaks no other language other than Saudi. She is Saudi down to the bone. But she is not afforded any of the privileges of being Saudi because her parents were born elsewhere.
It’s highly unlikely that she will succeed in obtaining financial assistance in the form of charity from an emir or sheikh. She certainly doesn’t have the support system that Saudis receive when their parents have died and they need financial help.
This young woman’s plight illustrates a growing problem in Saudi society about where these children -- born in Saudi Arabia to legal or illegal resident parents -- belong in society.
We have quickly become a country of parallel societies: Saudis and the invisible class of a new generation of young people denied an education and meaningful employment.
Let’s not talk of deportation. It’s impractical, costly and inhuman. Exactly how will the Saudi government deport children to a country they do not know or ever stepped foot on? And let’s remember that many parents of these children entered the country legally on Umrah and Haj visas and simply overstayed those visas. We can’t punish the children of overstayers by denying them the basics of an education and jobs. Ultimately, Saudi Arabia will be burdened with caring for this invisible class of people.
I think it would be a fine gesture of the Saudi government to extend citizenship to children born in the country to legal or illegal parents, but that’s rather naïve. Just looking at the citizenship requirements document issued by the government a few years ago reads like a recipe for failure for every expatriate who has the audacity to apply.
The difference the government can make is to extend all educational benefits to children born in Saudi Arabia to foreign parents. Give them scholarship pportunities for higher education and even send them abroad on the promise they will return and practice their profession in the Kingdom.
I dread the moment when I must contact this young medical student and tell her there is not much hope of continuing her studies. Saudi Arabia will lose a female physician at time when even losing one potential doctor should not be acceptable. We can take the easy route and continue to recruit foreign doctors. Some will stay a lifetime. Others will leave after a few years. The cycle of recruitment will continue and we will be no closer to filling the ranks of the Saudi medical community with Saudis. And yes, that includes the Egyptian medical student who calls Saudi Arabia her home, her country and now her mother and father.