Yemeni Refugees Still Stuck on Wrong Side of the Water
OBOCK, Djibouti, Sep 6 2016 (IPS) – Tears emerge from the slit of 20-year-old Gada’s black niqab face veil. After more than a minute’s silence she still can’t answer the question: How bad was it in Yemen before you left?
During 2015, escalation of fighting in Yemen led to a mass exodus. The UN refugee agency estimates that more than 2.4 million Yemenis have fled their homes to elsewhere in the country, and 120,000 have sought asylum in other countries.
“My future used to be in Yemen when I had a father with an income. But if we go back we’ll be starting from scratch. Before, we depended on ourselves, but how do we do that now?” — Issa, an 18-year-old refugee in the camp in Obock.
This includes Somalia and Djibouti on the opposite side from Yemen of the 30-km stretch of water known as Bab-el-Mandeb, meaning the Gateway of Tears—a name derived from the long history of people perishing when trying to cross it—at the southern entrance to the Red Sea.
Some of those who went to Djibouti settled in a refugee camp that grew outside Obock, a small sun-parched town on the Horn of Africa coast. Facilities in the camp remain basic, though they now include a school started singlehandedly by an American missionary to provide Yemeni children and young adults with education, as well as something more intangible.
“Education is obviously important, and the school gives parents a much needed break from their kids in the cramped camp, but this is more to do with showing the refugees that they matter and have a future—that they’re not left out,” says Marianne Vecchione, a Los Angeles resident who has spent the past year in Obock.
After one typically sweltering day in the camp—daily temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit—as the sun sets Yemeni children giggle among themselves as they hesitantly approach and pet a group of camels, idling in a sandy lane running between groups of tents.
The sight of the camels provides a rare moment of excitement amid the drudgery of camp life. Housed in the simple tents are Yemeni from all over the country and from all walks of life: from poor fisherman to relatively affluent professionals of the middle class.
“I had everything, a job and an internet shop, but the Houthi rebels took it,” says 25-year-old Saddam from the city of Alhodida. “Everything’s gone. The shop was probably worth 25,000 dollars. Mum and dad are still there, my sister is in Ta’izz and I have two brothers in the camp, but we don’t know where my other brother is—he’s lost somewhere.”
Despite such deprivations, refugees try to keep a sense of humour about their predicaments.
“Welcome to the Middle Ages,” 22-year-old Ali says with a smile as he lifts a hanging cloth acting as the entrance to an enclosed area, comprising a small central open area with a tent at either end, in which lives Ali, his mother and five siblings, two of whom go to the camp’s school where Ali volunteers as a teacher. Ali says his family knew a much better life in Sana’a, Yemen’s largest city, before his father was killed by a military plane’s bomb strike during fighting and the family fled.
“My future used to be in Yemen when I had a father with an income,” says Ali’s 18-year-old brother Issa. “But if we go back we’ll be starting from scratch. Before, we depended on ourselves, but how do we do that now?”
The camp at its peak had about 3,000 people, now there are about 1,000. Refugees have started returning to Yemen, braving the ongoing fighting there.
“There’s nothing like home,” says one woman in a group of Yemeni female refugees discussing what they miss. “Even if you are somewhere better, you can’t compare with it—where you had your childhood, the traditions, the parks, the mosques and culture. We miss everything, the breath and waves of Yemen. We even miss the shop keepers as they were part of daily life.”
In August, UN-sponsored talks in Kuwait for establishing peace in Yemen ended after 90 days unresolved, with fighting resuming between government forces and rebels.
“When will there be peace? Maybe in 30 years if the old generation dies and the young are more peaceful and loving,” says a 45-year-old Yemeni who back in Yemen is head of a tribe and didn’t want his name used due to his position. “The rebels came from nothing and took over everything, killing a lot. They had to have someone behind them—big support to get all the weapons.”
Yemen has fallen foul of a proxy war being waged between Saudi Arabia, supporting Yemen’s government forces, and Iran, backing the Houthi rebels who, according to Yemeni in the camp, having committed the most and worst atrocities.
Vecchione recounts how one day she told young school children to draw pictures for a class and by its end she found herself looking at scrawled pictures of the likes of bombed-out houses, dead people and boats being shelled—as refugees fled over the sea to Djibouti they were targeted by unknown forces on the Yemen mainland firing artillery at boats.
Many refugees are deeply traumatised, something the aid world can forget in its haste to deliver assistance, according to Vecchione.
“In the aid world things are done according to projects and programs, they’re not done according to individuals,” Vecchione says. “So the aid world can forget you’re dealing with someone who is traumatized and who needs special care, and needs a different way of handling.”
Djibouti’s government is often criticiz]sed for not doing enough to help large numbers of unemployed and impoverished in the country. But Vecchione notes how its Ministry of Education helped and cooperated fully with her when she undertook to take two groups of students to Djibouti City to complete exams, enabling them to progress to high-school and university in the future.
“The government does have challenges but they are showing the way internationally [with refugees],” says Tom Kelly, U.S. Ambassador to Djibouti, who has visited the camp a number of times and hosted the students at his residence while they took exams in the city. “They’ve saved thousands of lives. It deserves credit for opening its borders to people who had nowhere else to go.”
The influx of Yemeni refugees into Djibouti has totalled about 35,000, Kelly says, adding how, relative to the size of Djibouti’s population, this is like 13 million people entering the U.S.
Despite the refugees’ dire situation, Vecchione encountered opposition to her endeavours to help. She was accused by some of trying to convert students to Christianity—even though the school taught the Yemeni curriculum including lessons on the Koran and Islam.
At one stage, tensions were such her bosses considered pulling her out of Obock. But she stayed, and is adamant it was worth it. Everywhere she goes around the camp and small town she is accompanied by a common refrain from both young and adult voices: “Marianne! Marianne!”
It’s clear that some refugees appreciate what one Christian volunteer has done for them, despite what can be vast cultural and religious differences.
Meanwhile, although the ongoing war in Yemen can easily appear impossibly intractable, and its terrible fallout insurmountable, Vecchione notes how often the smallest things can still make a big difference.
“The school also breaks down some of the regional challenges people have based on the war, as there’s a lot of north/south and inter-city squabbling based on the fighting and trauma,” Vecchione says. “Different cities committed different atrocities, but the school brought [children and parents] together, and unified them as one people.”
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Pictures for this story
This story includes downloadable print-quality images — Copyright IPS, to be used exclusively with this story.
- With little to provide excitement in the camp, Yemeni children are drawn by a group of camels. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS
- A Yemeni man proudly watching over a young baby in a refugee camp in Obock, Djibouti. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS
- A young refugee girl pushing a wheelbarrow of rubbish through the camp. Credit: James Jeffrey/IPS