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My forgotten Yemen – World and Mission

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My forgotten Yemen – World and Mission

In the country currently in the eye of the storm due to the Houthi attacks in the Red Sea, the NGO founded by Asia Al-Mashreqi has helped two million war refugees. “But the world has left my people alone,” says the winner of the UN Nansen Prize

Life has taught Asia Al-Mashreqi that you have to fight for your dreams. Even if you are poor, very young and aspire to a future different from what others have imagined for you. Just like her, born 46 years ago on the outskirts of Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, into a humble family that did not accept her desire to continue her studies beyond primary school. «My relatives were convinced that boys had the right to receive an education while girls should stay at home – she says: they wanted me to marry one of my cousins».

She persisted and things went differently, so much so that Al-Mashreqi has just been awarded by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees for her commitment to leading the Sustainable Development Foundation, the NGO she created in 2015 to deal with one of the most serious – and forgotten – humanitarian crises in the world. Since the country on the Arabian Peninsula has been under the crossfire of government forces and Houthi rebels, who in recent weeks have been targeted by an international coalition for their attacks on cargo ships in the Red Sea, 4 and a half million Yemenis have been forced to abandon their homes and still, despite the fragile ceasefire of April 2022, 80% of the population lives thanks to humanitarian assistance. Aid to the country, however, has been cut by 62% over five years, while in December the World Food Program suspended food distribution in Houthi-controlled areas due to declining funding and disagreements with the group.

“My people have been left alone by the international community, even more so after other emergencies have attracted attention, from Ukraine to Israel and Palestine”, denounces the activist, who won the Nansen prize for the Middle East thanks to the support guaranteed in recent years to over two million people, in particular internally displaced persons and refugees.

The conflict in Gaza has brought the Yemeni Shiite rebels, supported by Iran, back into the spotlight, having repeatedly targeted ships in the Red Sea in retaliation for Israeli bombings on the Strip. But if the escalation has provoked the intervention of the international community, with attacks by a US-led coalition on various Houthi military positions, the population of Yemen is not benefiting from its return to the international map. “On the contrary: concern about Gaza once again leaves my people behind.”

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Asia, how is life in Yemen today?
«People are exhausted: they have no food, water, medical care. People struggle to eat once a day. Those who suffer most are the elderly, the disabled and children, who cannot go to school and are deprived of a safe environment in which to live peacefully. Even more so for females, who in addition to higher rates of school dropout, risk abuse and early marriage. Many mothers die due to lack of access to health care during pregnancy or at the time of childbirth. In general, women are in a very critical situation due to social but also economic vulnerability: this is why, in all our initiatives, we focus on their empowermentwhich then turns into a strategic tool to alleviate poverty and promote development, as well as to combat all forms of violence.”

How did you manage to free yourself from a context of backwardness to become a point of reference for your compatriots?
«It wasn’t easy. I faced two main obstacles: social pressure and poverty. We were eight brothers and it was a problem for my father to pay for everyone’s education. This is why since I was a child I invented small jobs to pay for school supplies and contribute at home: I sold sweets to other kids during recess, later I started working as a seamstress. But when I reached middle school, my family told me: “Enough is enough.” I was desperate, until someone told me about a local institute that supported girls’ schooling by guaranteeing food and a small financial contribution to their families: so I managed to convince my parents and I studied up to high school.”

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And she became a teacher: why was that a turning point?
«Because my parents realized that I could do something important. My father was very proud of me. For him the most difficult decision was to let me go to university, because my relatives and the entire community rejected this idea, there was a sort of social stigma given that I would have attended a mixed context. In the end, he decided to take my side and I became the first girl in the area to graduate from college. It was a very important step not only for me, because he paved the way for other women who then made the same choice as me. Among these were also the students of the Sana’a high school of which I was appointed principal: 4,000 students, who felt very close to me due to my young age and my humble social origin. We were united by the ambition and hope of obtaining more rights, freedom and political participation.”

In those years he carried out a campaign in schools to promote women’s health, obtained positions for the Ministry of Education, and was involved in development projects and support for refugees. Then came the war…
«It was a shock. Even before the conflict, life wasn’t easy, but in 2015 everything collapsed: suddenly we lost everything, there was no food, water, gas… We lived in the dark and went to sleep without knowing if we would wake up the next day. I remained in a state of depression for two months, crying all the time, until, together with three of my students and a colleague, we decided that we had to do something. We sold our family jewels and, with the proceeds used as seed capital, created the Sustainable Development Foundation. Our first intervention was in favor of two hundred internally displaced people who had to flee from Haradh, in the north-west of the country, to Hudaydah, on the Red Sea”.

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Since then, your action has expanded more and more.
«In recent years we have managed to reach over two million beneficiaries, refugees and Yemenis in vulnerable conditions, and from a staff of five friends, supported by our families, we have grown to 600 employees and volunteers, which makes us the largest foundation in the country. We operate in both the South and the North, in Houthi-controlled areas, with food security programs, access to healthcare and education, housing and livelihoods. In collaboration with UN agencies, other NGOs and the authorities, we have supported 50 health centers, opened a space in Sana’a that welcomed almost 12,000 refugee children and made it possible to start up 6,000 small businesses managed by young people and by women, to whom we teach strategic digital marketing and entrepreneurship skills.”

You maintain that to improve women’s lives we must start from within: in what sense?
«Yemeni society is not an obstacle. 80% of our women live in the countryside and are the ones who work in the gardens and are responsible for managing the family. The problem is certain traditional beliefs about gender roles, promoted in particular by some religious groups who have no interest in Yemenis going out, learning and having authority in the community. This is why, together with other women’s networks, we work to raise awareness, guarantee legal support and ensure the economic autonomy of women. And offer them successful models. If our girls and our young people were guaranteed safety and skills, they could work miracles.”

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