I am on the phone to a friend in Sanaa, when a bomb blast rocks her house. It is a bomb in a mosque 100 yards from the house where I used to live in Al Qaa. Today I read it is one of four mosque bombs, for which Islamic State claims responsibility. More victims. And more evidence of the spread of extremist Sunni militias in Yemen. It is only a few days since I first heard of Islamic State’s activity in Yemen. Now it is a new and frightening phase in the civil war in Yemen.
It is a problem getting through to friends, due to the erratic electricity supply. In parts of Sanaa they have had no electricity for seven days. When the electricity is turned on, everyone rushes to charge their phones and get to the nearest pump with their containers to get water. “You can live without electricity,” my friend says “but we are getting worried as it is impossible to manage without water.” Like many Yemeni families, hers are thinking they might have to travel overseas to seek refuge. Her parents own their own house, and other properties which they rent out as a source of income. At the moment, they are hosting three other displaced families in their home. Once they leave their house, they know it will be difficult to claim their own property back. Their choice is not an easy one. My friend tells me the water situation has been eased a little as some wealthy Yemenis have paid for water tanks to be delivered to the poorer areas of Sanaa, so they think they might stay a bit longer and see if things improve. One of the water tankers was delivering water and a bomb was dropped on them, killing the two drivers and injuring men and children who were queuing to fill their containers.
This friend, who has a degree in English and a Master’s degree in education, asks me if it would be possible for her to find work anywhere in UK. She is worried about the insecurity of travelling without work, and with limited savings, and she doesn’t want to be a refugee – she is a proud and industrious single woman, who worked as a translator and Arabic teacher even as a student to help pay her way through university; that was how I first met her. She has been in full time employment for more than fifteen years. I tell her that there is no chance of her working anywhere in Europe. She understands.
I get an email from a British friend who lives in Dubai with her Yemeni husband. He is worried about his sister and her family who live in Sanaa, and they have been trying to get them to Dubai. Jackie and her husband have their own company, and they have been applying for their relatives to get a visa. I wanted to hear the result of their efforts, because I too have residency in Dubai and I had been thinking I could try to get a work visa for my friend Sameera’s son. If Jackie has been successful, then I might try too. But no, they cannot get a visa. They have made many attempts, trying to be inventive to find a route that will unlock the door to Dubai. The answer is always no. Another avenue closed.
So I have to ring Sameera, whom I call her my sister – she is now living in a small flat in Tarim with 18 other displaced people – I tell her this news. She works for UNHCR, the refugee arm of the UN. The office in Aden is closed down, but she still gets updated on the situation there, and works on the Internet when the electricity allows. She tells me that the situation in Aden is critical. People are dying of starvation, dehydration, disease and conflict. There are no humanitarian agencies there because it is too dangerous. We discuss what her family will do next. She says that her son and son-in-law might travel to Malaysia, the only country that has offered three month visas to Yemenis escaping the war. We discuss whether her daughter, now pregnant because of the lack of available contraception, should go with them. I suggest to Sameera that she should go too – the whole family should travel together. I tell her, as an experienced doctor, she is the one who is most likely to find work, and her family need her. She is surprised at my suggestion, but after a few moments, I can tell that she is considering it. Once she leaves Yemen, her job with the UN will be terminated, and she will have no income at all; it’s risky. We discuss how her three children whose degree courses have been terminated due to the war can get qualified; they were studying dentistry, medicine and engineering. I promise to continue working on it; with little electricity and poor Wi-Fi, they rely on me to contact universities throughout the world.
In a text when she fled from Aden, Sameera said “My dear, for the first time, I feel so fragile and helpless. I can’t think, act or plan, all I do is cooking and wait for what tomorrow will bring. (War????? Peace????? Victory?????) My mind is completely paralysed. But God has sent me you to do the thinking, the planning, and the support”. This woman, who has single-handedly brought up a family of four amazing children and ensured that they all went to university, who worked in a senior post with the UN, who scrimped and saved to build her own beautiful house – now destroyed, who has lobbied and fought for the human rights of refugees, of women – to change laws so that they could have contraception without the permission of their husband, to prevent female genital mutilation. This woman; who set an example to other Yemeni women by just living her life; demonstrating that Yemeni women did not have to stay in violent or unsatisfactory marriages; they could be single and independent mothers, useful members of society, who are respected and loved.
I tell her, you will get through this, you will have a very different future, but it will still be happy and worthwhile. She says, if I travel to Malaysia, can you come to visit me? Of course.
I ring her daughter; she was due to take her final exams this year as a dentist. She is working as a volunteer, today assisting a surgeon who is working on the face of someone who had sustained severe injuries in the conflict. It was very interesting, she said. We discuss courses that she might be able to take in UK – she has had to accept she will never be a dentist now, as her faculty has been destroyed and she cannot get verification for nearly five years study. I have a positive lead for a Master’s degree in Public Health; she is pleased. We discuss her pregnancy. She is still feeling very sick; she thinks the nausea is aggravated by stress. If the baby is a girl, she is going to be named after me.
Another day for courageous and generous Yemenis, forced to make such difficult choices and just get on with living. And another day for one of the many people who have loved ones in Yemen. We will prevail.