Mohammed worked hard back in Sa’ada. “I was a plumber, an electrician, I was in construction and I also polished shoes,” he explains. “I can’t say that I had only one job as I worked in different fields.”
“That was before I left my home.”
A famine warning has just been issued for Yemen, already home to the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.
When violence swept across the area close to the border with Saudi Arabia, Mohammed’s family fled for their lives. “Our home was destroyed by an airstrike after we left,” he says.
Their journey to find safety was a gruelling one. What was waiting for them at the settlement known as Al-Tarbeyah camp, close to the capital city of Sana’a, was not much better.
Building a home stone by stone
“There was no shelter like this when we arrived,” Mohammed says, indicating the stone and clay hut where he now lives with his family.
Initially, another displaced family took him in and helped him to build a tent out of plastic sheeting. Later, he explains, “I built this home with my wife. I started to collect stones. I spent more than a year collecting them, stone by stone.”
Their most pressing need was always food. “I have been receiving a monthly food basket from the World Food Programme,” Mohammed says, “and it played a major role in covering our food needs.” The rations contain wheat flour, cooking oil, sugar, beans and salt.
“But since April,” Mohammed says, “we started to receive one basket every two months.”
Going to sleep hungry
Some 9 million people in Yemen have had their food assistance reduced due to a shortage of funding from international donors. Unless something changes urgently, even more families will start losing food.
Mohammed doesn’t know why his rations were halved, but he has felt the impact. He and other adults skip meals to make sure their children don’t go to sleep hungry – a common coping mechanism for families facing a shortage of food.
Other ways that families try to cope include getting into debt, shrinking their meals smaller, and selling off their last belongings to buy food.
“It is enough that we [adults] are suffering,” Mohammed explains, “but children are innocent.”
At least half a million children in Yemen are suffering from “acute” malnutrition, meaning they are not getting enough of the right food to grow properly.
Mohammed’s family are also missing mattresses and blankets for protection in the coming winter. Plus there are no latrines in their camp. But they can hardly think about these other needs. “Getting enough food is the priority for everyone in this camp,” he says. “I hope that we can start getting the food basket again each month.”
“I worry about my children and my neighbours’ children”
Though the families gathered here in Al-Tarbeyah camp are from many places across Yemen – Al-Hodeidah, Hajjah, Sa’ada, Ibb and Taiz – and have very little themselves, they all help one another. Mohammed’s neighbours have helped him deal with this latest blow.
“Sometimes we don’t have enough food at home, but our neighbours share theirs with us,” he explains. “The best thing is that we live as one family in this camp.”
However, this sense of community also adds to his worries.
“It is enough that we adults are suffering, but children are innocent.
“I worry about my children and my neighbours’ children,” he says. “If my neighbour is in need of anything, I feel his need. If my neighbour’s children are sick, my children share their suffering.”
Many families here and elsewhere in Yemen can’t afford to send their children to school. Every family member has to try to help find food, and there is no money for books or clothes.
What can be done?
Five years of brutal attacks on civilians, along with restrictions on imports, economic decline and half a million unpaid civil servant salaries, are pushing millions closer to starvation.
Food prices have doubled. The roads needed to transport food cheaply and safely are damaged. Farmers are fleeing their land and markets continue to be attacked.
Restoring aid and supporting Yemen’s economy would alleviate the worst of the suffering. But only a full ceasefire and an end to the war will allow families like Mohammed’s to rebuild their lives in safety.
In the meantime, NRC and our fellow humanitarians are doing all we can to keep this crucial lifeline open.