Gabriella (left) with Najim (middle) and NRC colleagues outside his house in Amran city, Yeman. Photo ©NRC

Yemen: Behind closed doors

Gabriella Waaijman|Published 30. Jun 2016
Life has begun to return to the streets of Amran city in Yemen. But these signs of normalcy hide another reality. Most of the 2 million people who have fled their homes inside Yemen are invisible, suffering silently behind the walls of relatives' houses. This is the paradox of Yemen's story.

“I met Nabiha after she had fled Sa’ada city during Yemen’s war. Her husband had been killed, but she escaped, pregnant, with their two small children. Nabiha fled to Amran city where her brother lived. Life took another turn for the worse when his home was hit by a flash flood. Much of the furniture inside was destroyed. A wall collapsed and cracks formed up the living room walls, which Nabiha and her children were using as a bedroom. But they carried on, tough and determined.

Yemenis are among the most resilient people I have ever met. I have been travelling in and out of the country over the past two years, and I am still surprised by how families continue with daily life, despite a year of relentless bombing.

Recently I have noticed that life has somehow returned to the streets. Colorful shop entrances framed with strings of mangos cheer up bombed-out surroundings. Drivers jovially hoot at each other, adding to the vibrant street noise. Families chat in the isles of the reopened supermarkets, catching up on the latest news, as if oblivious to the destruction and ruin caused by a conflict that is now in its 16th month.

These signs of normalcy are comforting, but they also hide a grave reality. Eight out of ten Yemenis rely on humanitarian assistance to survive – a staggering 21 million people. Half the population struggle to feed themselves and have no access to safe drinking water. Six hundred health facilities were forced to shut down over the last year. And in a grim wink to the future, over 3 million children are out of school.

I also met with Najim in Amran city. He lives close to Nabiha, and his home too was damaged in the flash floods. Despite struggling to feed his two children, he welcomed ten relatives to his house that had fled bombing. It is the Yemeni way – looking after your brother and your brother’s brother. Family ties are strong and people take care of each other, even if this means struggling more to survive.

This is the paradox of Yemen’s story. Most of the 2 million people who have fled their homes inside the country are invisible, suffering silently behind the walls of their relatives’ houses. Instead of being rewarded for their resilience, the world is largely deaf to their needs. Less than a fifth of the aid appeal for Yemen has been funded. As a relief organization, we want to do more; we just don’t have the money.

The Norwegian Refugee Council was able to help Najim and Nabiha after the flash flooding. We provided them and 400 other families with blankets, mattresses and household supplies. But seeing the scale of needs and how little we were able to do made me feel inadequate. Najim, Nabiha and their neighbours’ lives would become harder, and the cycle of poverty they were trapped in would be more difficult to escape.

It left me wondering where the breaking point lies for people like Nabiha and Najim. I know I would have passed it many, many months ago. For their resilience and strength they deserve the world’s support, not its back.”

Gabriella Waaijman is the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Regional Director for East Africa and Yemen. She has been working in the humanitarian sector for over 15 years.