Established nearly sixty years ago, the American Women’s League of Kuwait is the oldest expat women’s group in Kuwait. When current AWL President Pamela Khraibut began doing research in order to compile a list of past board members, she discovered the League has a fascinating history that reflects the social development of Kuwait.“Following the trail of the board members is becoming an interesting journey that reveals how AWL became what it is today,” Pamela remarks.
Pamela called on the Arab Times and asked to have access to the archives in order to help her track AWL’s past. Arab Times also caught up with some longstanding AWL members and former members to shed more light on the group’s origins and wide-ranging activities. AWL’s longest serving member, Maxine Al Rifai, spoke of the early days of the group, when the ladies used to meet in private homes. “I came to Kuwait in 1956 and as I remember, it was a few years later that we began getting together,” she recalls. “Initially there were just a few of us but the numbers soon grew. Years later, when we had more members, the meetings were held in hotel restaurants or meeting rooms.”
Then as now, AWL’s purpose is for members to meet in fellowship, share ideas and interests, participate in social and cultural activities, and learn about local customs and culture. In 2016, AWL became an official American non-profit 5013C organisation with permission to operate in Kuwait. Membership was originally open only to Americans and wives of Americans residing in Kuwait but rules were later amended to allow a certain quota of non-Americans to join as associate members.
Many long-time American residents of Kuwait who are married to Kuwaitis describe the organisation as being a lifeline during their early years of residence in the country and an important part of their lives for many years later. “We needed a link to home and that’s what AWL gave us,” said Jerry Ismaiel, who came to Kuwait in 1972 and joined AWL soon after.
Debbie Bourahmah, another American who has lived in Kuwait for decades, was a member of the Mothers of Young Children group and fondly recalls the informal gatherings with other American moms and their offspring at playgrounds in local gardens or at the beach. “It was usually a potluck affair and something we really looked forward to, especially since in those days there were no cafes or public places where you could sit and chat. Many of us who were married to Kuwaitis and had young children lived in small apartments or with our in-laws, so entertaining at home was difficult.”
In days gone by, American women whose American husbands brought them to Kuwait on overseas contracts also valued all that AWL had to offer.As former Kuwait resident Patricia Wyss explained, “In December 1982 I had never heard of Kuwait. Yet six months later, after the company my husband worked for was purchased by Kuwait Petroleum and he was asked to go to Kuwait, I was calling Kuwait home. Newly arrived in Kuwait I viewed AWL as a social outlet. At AWL I met women from throughout the United States that had shared the same cultural experiences, regardless of which state we came from. AWL meant friendship.”
For longtime American expatriates like Patricia and her family, AWL provided the opportunity for them to embrace their American culture while living overseas. “Photographs of my daughter at AWL Christmas and Halloween parties, Easter egg hunts, and with US military being hosted at Thanksgiving are all testimonials of how integral AWL events were in helping me, my husband, and my daughter to practice our American traditions.”
The strong bonds of fellowship that American women had formed through AWL also helped carry them through times of crisis. After Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 the Iraqis began rounding up foreigners to be used as human shields at Iraqi installations. Americans were forced to live in hiding and the penalty imposed by the Iraqis on anyone harboring a foreigner was death by hanging. The shared danger during these dark days made friendships deeper.Many AWL members served as wardens for the US embassy and helped get important information out to fellow Americans by telephone. Making these calls was not without peril as local telephone lines were tapped by Iraqi forces.
The warden system was eventually used to inform Americans about evacuation flights. AWL members travelled together on Iraqi Airways jets when they and their children flew from Iraqi-occupied Kuwait to the United States via Baghdad. Husbands, however, were forced to remain behind as Saddam Hussein had only given permission for women and children to leave.
Once safely in America, groups of AWL members found each other in states all across the country. Now sharing another common bond as refuges, the women offered each other much-needed support. Many joined the information campaign for a free Kuwait, publishing newsletters, attending demonstrations, and engaging in public speaking. The women also tried to help each other attain some semblance of normalcy for their children by getting together for play sessions and birthday parties.When one group of mostly blonde AWL members, all married to Kuwaitis, held a birthday party for their dark-haired youngsters in a southern California public park, a Latino man approached them and asked with genuine curiosity, “Hey ladies, how come all your kids look like Mexicans?” Since all the women had husbands inside Kuwait and had no idea whether they were safe or had possibly been tortured, killed, or captured by the Iraqis, this provided some comic relief for the occasion. One of these women later learned her husband, who was in the Kuwaiti military, was a POW. Fortunately, after the liberation he was released and returned safely to Kuwait.
Once the Gulf War was over and the American women and their children returned to Kuwait, the children’s parties and get-togethers resumed, but so did occasions of a more serious nature. AWL invited explosive ordnance disposal experts to several meetings in order to teach members, guests, and their children about the huge numbers of mines, bombs, and other active explosive devices planted in Kuwait by the Iraqis. “If I didn’t drop it I won’t pick it up” was the slogan taught to children as they learned never to approach these potentially-lethal items.
Through the Adult Activities Committee, AWL members were provided with the opportunity to become better acquainted with the local community. During the years following the Iraqi occupation there were some particularly interesting field trips, including a tour of Bayan Palace in 1993. The palace had been looted, vandalised, and burned by Iraqi forces. A Kuwaiti guide took the ladies inside the ravaged conference building, which had been used as a command post and torture center. The guide informed the visitors that after liberation, dead bodies of Kuwaitis had been found there along with blood on the floor and walls and many instruments of torture. Other tours to local places of interest included the Tareq Rajab Museum, the gold souk, the Arab Organisations Headquarters Building, and the camel races.
After the Gulf War, AWL members were often surprised at the extent of the warmth and respect shown to them by members of the local community. Sheikha Latifa Fahad Al Sabah, wife of then Crown Prince and Prime Minister Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Salim Al Sabah (later the Amir Father of Kuwait) expressed these sentiments at an AWL meeting in 1995.
“I would like at the outset to convey the deep appreciation of Kuwaiti women to the American people, who not only stood by us firmly and strongly against the treacherous Iraqi invasion and occupation of our country…but also sent American young men and women to fight with us against the forces of evil aggression until Kuwait was liberated. In this connection I would like to pay tribute to the active participation by American women in the battle for Kuwait. Such participation will always be remembered with esteem by all of us in Kuwait.”
On behalf of the Kuwaiti Union for Women’s Societies, Sheikha Latifa confirmed that Kuwaiti women were keen to establish close cooperation with American women in Kuwait, and through them, with women’s societies in the United States. “We wish to see further exchanges of visits between Kuwaiti and American women. We will continue to work for a closer friendship, wider cooperation and an ever growing relationship over the years,” she said.
One of the highlights of the AWL calendar had long been the pre-Christmas Annual Charity Bazaar. First held as a small event in the early 1970s, it quickly grew in size and popularity until it was referred to as “the shopping opportunity of the year and the social event of the season.” In present day Kuwait with more modern shopping malls and Western franchise stores than any reasonable person has time to visit, it may be hard to imagine the importance of a holiday bazaar. However, back in the day it provided a rare opportunity for Westerners to shop for much-coveted seasonal items, like Christmas decorations painstakingly made by hand by AWL members, home-made holiday treats, and old favorites like Christmas stockings and candy canes which some AWL members carefully carried back to Kuwait from visits to the States. With the vendors’ booths and the hall all beautifully-decorated, Christmas music playing in the background, and the hustle and bustle of friendly shoppers, the event truly put people into the festive spirit and was enjoyed by Kuwaitis just as much as expatriates.
The AWL bazaar was held every year up until 2006, except for the year of the Iraqi occupation, and 1998, when a crisis with Iraq resulted in many Westerners leaving the country on voluntary evacuations. The bazaar raised money for local, American, and international charities.
At the first AWL meeting of the season in October 2003, Kellie Hills, AWL President at the time, observed, “The lifestyle in Kuwait has changed so drastically since the league began so many years ago. Therefore, as a league, we too must change. What do we hope to achieve? With the help of a wonderful board and the cooperation of our valued members, we are focusing our attention on finding a happy medium between our social gatherings and contributions to the community through organised charitable functions. Each general meeting will not only include a wonderful social event, lively entertainment, and delicious cuisine, but will also identify an area of need in the community and host an activity to support it.”
The lifestyle in Kuwait had indeed changed dramatically over the years. Long gone were the days when there were no suitable places for ladies to gather; when AWL members had to make their own holiday decorations, special seasonal foods, and children’s costumes; when they exchanged recipes for unattainable American food items like pumpkin pie or pancake syrup; or when their children had little exposure to American holiday events or popular American culture. The women themselves had also changed; with burgeoning employment and commercial opportunities, many American women had embarked on successful careers or started their own businesses.As a former AWL member remarked in 2006, “Nowadays there is just too much to do in Kuwait and not enough time to do it in.” As a result of these changes, AWL suffered declining membership for several years. Finally, at a general meeting in 2011, with less than twenty members present, a call for volunteers went out. “Is there anyone who wants AWL to continue and who will take charge?” Longtime member Deborah Al Qanai raised her hand and became President, while Patricia Al Enezi took up the office of Vice President and was also responsible for Adult Activities.Other hard-working ladies were found to fill the remaining vacant positions on the board, including Deborah’s daughters Hannan and Mona. Maxine Al Refai, the longest serving AWL member, became Honorary Board Member. DeNeece Tueller, wife of the American Ambassador and AWL Honorary President, also contributed to AWL’s revival with her staunch commitment and enthusiasm.
According to Deborah and the board members, it took a lot of hard work to rebuild the membership but they succeeded by offering new activities, allowing students to earn community service hours by volunteering, increasing the quota of non-American associate members, and keeping in touch with members and contacting potential members through a variety of mediums.AWL President for 2019/2020 Pamela Khraibut looked through the many Arab Times articles documenting AWL’s activities and remarked that over the years the League had built up a truly rich and vibrant legacy. “What really strikes me is that all this was accomplished by volunteers,” she said. “When you think of all the time spent and the hard work involved it speaks volumes about the ladies in our League. But that’s what AWL has always been about: people volunteering and supporting each other.”
Pamela also noted that despite shifting demographics, the deep bonds of friendship and camaraderie fostered by AWL over the years still endure. She told her own story of when she came to Kuwait nearly seven years ago with her Kuwaiti husband and three young children. Soon after their arrival, her mother-in-law was diagnosed with a serious illness and Pamela’s husband had to accompany her abroad for several months of treatment.The sudden departure of her husband left Pamela very lonely in her new home. “When I discovered AWL it was a blessing,” she recalls. “Deborah Al Qanai reached out to me and offered valuable support, and the meetings and events took place in such a welcoming atmosphere, it was wonderful.”
The new President, an IT consultant, native of New York, and mother of four, had served on the board as AWL’s Treasurer for four years. “Now I’m looking forward to serving as President, to giving back to the League. I’ll be looking at what we did in the past and reviving some of those great activities while continuing to do what has recently been successful, and expanding and developing new opportunities.”
| The next AWL meeting, a membership drive, will be held on September 7, 2019 at 10:00 a.m. at the Jumeirah Messilah Beach Resort & Spa. Monthly meetings and events will be held from September through May, with some activities taking place in the morning and others in the evening, in order to accommodate those who work. |
AWL President Pamela Khraibut encourages those who are not sure about joining to attend a meeting as a guest. “If you join you don’t have to come to every meeting; you can be as active or as relaxed about your membership as you like.”
For more information, see the website www.awlkuwait.org, Facebook American Women’s League, Instagram @awlkuwait, or contact them by email email@example.com.
By Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud
Special to the Arab Times