Emirati mothers rejoice at formalising their children as citizens

After a landmark decision to offer citizenship to the children of Emirati women married to foreigners, Bushra Alkaff Al Hashemi talks to mothers about what it means to finally be able to pass on the gift of a UAE passport.

The children of Dr Jamilah Suliman Khanji, above, are among those with foreign fathers and an Emirati mother who are now entitled to hold a UAE passport once they turn 18 following a presidential decree. Delores Johnson / The National
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It was a Friday afternoon in early January when a phone call changed the lives of two young men forever. "Marheba el salam aleech. This is the Naturalisation and Residency Department in Abu Dhabi. We want the children and their passports."

Looking back, Zuha Al Mousa recalls that she nearly decided not to take the call because she did not recognise the number on her caller ID.

Eventually she picked up the phone, with the voice at the other end of the line telling Mrs Al Mousa that her children at last were to become Emirati citizens.

Married to a man from another Gulf country, Mrs Al Mousa, who works in a senior position for a Government entity, was just one of thousands of women in her position; born Emirati but unable to pass on UAE citizenship to their children.

Then, last December, as the nation celebrated its 40th anniversary, came the announcement from Sheikh Khalifa, President of the UAE. Like men married to non-Emirati women, mothers could now pass on their citizenship to their children if their husbands were foreigners.

For the Al Mousa family, there was no time to wait. Her two eldest sons, both born and raised in Abu Dhabi, were studying for their bachelor degrees at Edinburgh University, nearly 6,000 kilometres away in Scotland.

"I immediately called my children, put them on the first plane and within 24 hours they were here," Mrs Al Moussa says. "They arrived early Sunday morning."

The speed and efficiency with which the Government has followed up the promise in the December decree both surprised and impressed all those affected by it.

After Sheikh Khalifa's announcement, a committee was set up under Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, the Minister of Presidential Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister, to decide who should be included in the new citizenship rules and then take swift action.

Over the next few weeks, the committee, headed by Ahmed Juma Al Za'abi, and including representatives of the Presidential Affairs ministry, the Ministry of the Interior and the State Security Service, held a series of meetings and even travelled abroad to get an exact number of children affected by the decree.

On December 31 last year, the committee gathered for a crucial meeting at the Presidential Palace in Abu Dhabi. The result was a list of 1,117 names of children of Emirati mothers married to foreign fathers. With the approval of Sheikh Khalifa, all were to be granted UAE citizenship.

In January, Mrs Al Mousa's children were interviewed by the Naturalisation and Residency Department, handing over all the paperwork and documents needed to issue them with citizenship and a UAE passport.

Then came that fateful Friday phone call. Across the country, dozens of other families were also getting the same good news.

Finally, earlier this month in a ceremony shown on national TV, their children were handed their passports and welcomed as citizens of the UAE.

For Mrs Al Mousa, the ceremony marked the end of an issue that her children had always found to difficult to understand. "What was emotionally bothering me personally was how they always used to ask about it," she says, adding that her children would say: "We are born here, we are your children, this is our country. "

Mrs Al Mousa recalls telling them: "You are the children of a daughter of the Emirates, yes, but not on paper."

Dr Jamila Suliman Khanji, another Emirati woman married to a foreigner, says that the ineligibility of her children to be citizens "didn't really affect them as much as it affected me".

Dr Khanji, an adviser at the Family Development Foundation in Abu Dhabi says: "I was worried as a mother; because I wanted them to be as much a part of this dear country as others. You always want the best for your children. I wanted them to have the same opportunities like everyone else."

Some of Dr Khanji's sons and daughters are studying, while others are now working, but she says that "a better materialistic opportunity was not my main worry for them. I want them to be part of this country, only because they do feel they belong to it. Belonging is very important to the formation of a human and it is a psychological need."

Mrs Al Mousa says when her children were younger, the only answer she could think of to the question 'where are we from?' was: "We are Emiratis."

It was only when they were older and saw their names on passports from another country that they realised otherwise, she says.

"Their memories are the same memories of every Emirati child; playing in the different neighbourhoods, the Corniche of Abu Dhabi, the schools, all the National Day celebrations, the love of Zayed, the story of love to the only country they know."

Since getting citizenship, she says her children "feel more settled and confident and already have a plan of what to do and where to work".

Before the announcement, Mrs Al Mousa says she even considered that there might be more opportunities for her sons if they worked abroad, even if her eldest always insisted that he would return to Abu Dhabi.

"He feels more part of society, he is more concerned to come back faster," she says. "He keeps saying: 'I want to add value, I have ideas and capabilities'."

Dr Al Khanji says she is happy that her children, and those in similar circumstances have been given the chance to participate more fully in the country of their birth. At the same time, she says her children never experienced any negativity about their old status, such as bullying at school.

"We in the UAE practise a high level of humanity values and people are very kind and open minded," she says.

One of the recommendations of the committee is that children born to a foreign father should wait until they are 18, and legally adults, before choosing their nationality.

Dr Al Khanji says that this was a "wise decision" adding: "They gave the young man or women the responsibility of deciding. Then, if he or she has different plans for their life, there are no obligations." In some cases children born to Emirati mothers are now living in their father's country.

Such children, says Dr Al Khanji, may not experience the culture, traditions and values of UAE culture. "I think for a person to be an Emirati, they have to be involved as any son of this land," she says.

As an acknowledged expert in child development in the Arab world, as well as a parent herself, Dr Al Khanji says a mother's role in shaping the personality of her child begins even in the womb.

"Mothers are the essence of life," she says. "They are the core that shapes the child's personality."

Some of her patients have been children who did not know who their parents were and Dr Khanji says she has seen the pain of any loss of identity.

"I don't think there is anything more difficult than not knowing who you are," she says.

Dr Khanji and Mrs Al Mousa agree that a genuine love for your country is much deeper than just the issuing of citizenship papers and a passport.

In the majlis and the Arab press, the word most commonly used is wala'a, or loyalty and solidarity. "Loyalty and solidarity are not given, they come from your core, but the belongings can be given," Dr Khanji says.

Mrs Al Mousa becomes tearful when she describes the "honour" of receiving an Emirati passport.

"I tell you from the bottom of my heart, it is such an honour for the whole world to recognise you as an Emirati."

After loyalty, what is most important is the responsibility that citizenship brings, she says. "Who ever gets nationality, he has the responsibility to honour his country, its people and its leaders."