Women Flee a Hellscape in Yemen. Here Are Their Lives Now
Hemmed in by war and geography, Yemen’s 28 million people are essentially trapped. It’s tough to get out by air, it’s dangerous by land, and the sea crossing to Africa is perhaps the most perilous of all — especially if, like Awzra Abdusaid, you can’t swim.
In early September, Abdusaid and her adult son boarded a fishing boat in the southern port of Aden. It was her first time at sea and she had sold her gold earrings to pay 35,000 Yemeni riyals ($140) for the journey. They set sail into waters patrolled by various foreign navies, swarming with pirates, and buffeted by heavy winds. By evening, their small vessel had arrived at the fishing village of Obock in northern Djibouti, site of the only United Nations camp for refugees from Yemen’s often-forgotten war.
Since her escape fighting has intensified, alliances have shifted and the country has sunk deeper into a humanitarian crisis. Saudi Arabia, which is leading the war on rebels linked to Iran, has stepped up bombing and tightened an economic blockade. There are signs that the U.S. is getting impatient with its ally — yet America continues to provide military support for the Saudi campaign. Meanwhile, inside Yemen, cholera and famine are spreading.
“Anyone who’s tasted the pain there will try to flee,” Abdusaid said.
If they can. When Abdusaid got to the UN camp she found about 1,100 fellow Yemenis there, a tiny fraction of the 3 million who’ve been forced from their homes. The longer Yemen’s conflict goes on, and the deadlier it becomes, the harder it is to get out. It’s estimated that about 180,000 people have left the country, compared with perhaps 5 million from Syria, which has a similar population.
“This is how we feel — that the whole world is saying, ‘the Yemenis should stay in their country and die,”’ said Suha Basharen, a gender researcher in the capital, Sana’a.
Yemen is the Arab world’s poorest country. Although plenty of women worked before the war, cultural expectations were that men supported their households.
In recent years, though, men have been disappearing to the frontlines to fight. Tens of thousands have been killed or injured. Many more saw their incomes evaporate, as Yemen’s government stopped paying the salaries that about 30 percent of the population depended on.
“Who’s taking the burden of all this? It’s women,” Basharen said.
That wartime shift is happening inside Yemen, where stories are spreading of women breaking taboos by selling vegetables at street stalls, or starting bakeries. Journalists are largely barred from entering Yemen, so it’s difficult to capture the trend. But it’s happening among refugees too.
“Women have become the sole breadwinners of entire families,” said Mayada Saleh, who works at a non-governmental organization in Amman, Jordan — one of the few countries where Yemenis can get refugee status. “When the war started, women started to look for creative ideas to earn more money and to make ends meet.”
That’s a constant preoccupation at the Obock camp in Djibouti.
It was set up three years ago, in an area that has centuries-old ties with Yemen. In the early days, there were security problems for women and their families: Aid workers reported cases of adolescent girls lured into sex work in exchange for food and money.
Now, the camp has settled into life as a makeshift Yemeni village.
Several aid agencies have set up shop, offering handicraft lessons and reading programs. Children run in and out of neighbors’ tents. And men, when they can get it, chew on the country’s beloved qat, a mild narcotic.
The camp’s men work in fishing and construction, at restaurants in town, or for aid agencies. Or, like Ahmad Abdu Ragab, not at all. Ragab, shirtless with wisps of thinning white hair, interrupts another man complaining about the quality of qat. He has a deeper problem with the camp arrangements. There aren’t enough jobs and only a bare minimum of food, mostly rice, he said. “We’ve become addicted, like sheep.”
The qat offers comfort, and a reminder of lost lives. Meanwhile, many of the camp’s women are having to break new ground.
Mahina Saleh, a middle-aged divorcee, has been in the camp since its early days. She crossed by sea from Dhubab on Yemen’s southwestern tip, along with her children and relatives, after their coastal homes were destroyed in the war.
Inside her tent, Saleh displays a series of purses and wallets she’s made at the camp. One design has a labyrinth of red and khaki squares, another is like a rainbow.
“The most important thing is money,” she said. “If you have money, you can be mobile.”
Saleh appreciates the aid efforts of camp officials, but says the monthly rations aren’t enough for her family. So she and other women turned to sewing. They use their own money to buy supplies, then sell their products to shops in Djibouti’s capital, three hours away, for about 750 Djiboutian francs ($4.20) apiece — half what they’re worth, she says.
“I think about how I used to live in Yemen,” Saleh said. “I imagine, and then I cry, and contemplate suicide. And then I say, God forgive me. And then I tell myself, ‘This is my destiny, this is what was written for us by the Most Merciful.”’
The midday call to prayer reverberates through the camp.
Deep in the capital’s central bazaar, the Souk al-Dhubab, is where Saleh’s handiwork finds a market. It’s a bustling scene. Hawkers sell perfume and Yemeni sweets; women crush into a small abaya shop, sizing up the designs.
Further down, another refugee is selling her own goods.
Afrah Suhail’s shop has signs in Arabic and French. Open the door, and a waft of bukhoor, Yemeni frankincense, fills the air. Inside, tubs of Yemeni and Ethiopian honey sit on shelves, along with spices and herbal teas. Almost everything is hexagonal, from the yellow honeycombs painted on the walls, to the light fittings and storage boxes. “It’s all my idea,” says Suhail from behind her desk.
Trained as a chemist, Suhail worked for Yemen’s education ministry before the war. She flew to Djibouti with her teenage son shortly after the fighting started and hadn’t reckoned on staying there. But Egypt — where she was planning to join some relatives — imposed new entry requirements for Yemenis. Suhail found herself with a visa to nowhere. The money she’d brought out of Yemen started to dry up.
Then, her son fell ill with a high fever. She couldn’t find a taxi, and had to carry him to the hospital. She found herself thinking of the remedies she would’ve tried at home — including honey, for which Yemen is famous. And she was surprised that she couldn’t find anywhere selling it.
“I wasn’t thinking about honey as a business,” Suhail said. “But suffering produces ideas.”
For Suhail’s husband and his family, the idea of a woman running a shop was outlandish. She blames tribal and cultural traditions — not religious principles — for the taboo, which is shared by younger Yemeni males. “My son started asking, ‘How are you going to go out and how are you going to open a shop and stand there?’” Suhail said. “He was in shock.”
Still, she arranged for the sale of her car and other assets back in Yemen, and found a store to rent. Family members helped out with money, and sent tubs of honey from her homeland; she also found suppliers from Ethiopia. The shop opened in August 2015.
“I had a comfortable lifestyle in Yemen,” Suhail said. “I had to push myself through a much harder situation here.” The store has brought in enough money for her to send her mother and son to Egypt, once visa rules were eased. The boy, Majdi, studies there; back in Djibouti during vacation, he was helping his mother with the labelling as she poured dark honey from five-liter tubs into smaller jars. When he was gone, for almost a year, Suhail said she felt alone.
“Yemeni men come to me and say, ‘How could you open the project all by yourself, as a woman, in Djibouti?”’ she said. “I transformed from a refugee into a businesswoman.”
Yemenis like Suhail who earn money abroad are sending much of it back to their homeland — providing a lifeline for the broken economy. Remittances totaled about $3.4 billion in 2014, the last available estimate, according to the World Bank. That’s about 8 percent of GDP.
Across the sea, Jordan has a sizable concentration of refugees from Yemen, with about 8,500 officially registered. They tend to be better-off than their compatriots in Djibouti, and many were already in Jordan when the war broke out.
In mid-September a group of them gathered at a hip co-working space in Amman. They’re a mash-up of students, consultants for international NGOs, and job-seekers.
Most feel welcomed by Jordanians, but many also grumble that it’s hard to get by in this expensive Arab capital, which also hosts some 2 million Syrian refugees. You can get a residency permit by depositing 20,000 dinars ($28,000) in a Jordanian account. Few have that kind of money.
Yasmeen Al-Nadheri, a divorcee who’s supporting her parents and daughter with her income from a job at a foreign NGO, started a network dubbed #TransitYouth; she says she’s trying to build a database of exiles, in Jordan or Egypt but also further-flung outposts like Malaysia, where Yemenis have ended up, and “raise awareness among donors that we exist.’’
The group set up a telephone hotline for Yemenis coming to Jordan, or just passing through, in case of medical emergencies. Many of its members were shaken by the story of a Yemeni who was transiting through Amman to get medical treatment in India, but wasn’t allowed onto the plane because he didn’t have a doctor’s note saying he was well enough to travel. He then died.
Al-Nadheri’s outfit has also voiced concerns to Ismail Ould Sheikh Ahmed, the UN special envoy to Yemen, whose office is based in Amman, and whose efforts to broker peace talks have struggled. But for all their ambitions, the gatherings also serve as a kind of support group for these young people, many of whom haven’t seen their families for almost three years.
One thing that the Yemeni women in Jordan have noticed is that their roles are changing.
Some of the shifts may look tiny. “I put my picture up,’’ says Soumaia Al-Montaser, who’s studying to be a nurse, with a smile. It’s the first time her Facebook profile carried her photo. Yemeni women typically wear a face-veil, and on social media their appearance — and sometimes even their real names — often remain hidden.
That’s just the visible part of deeper shifts that the war has brought, says al-Montaser, who also tutors kids in Amman to earn extra cash which she sends back to her family in Sana’a — helping pay school fees of her nieces and nephews. “The suffering has opened up something different,” she said.
On a busy street in Amman, Al-Montaser recounts just how it’s different. When her father passed away a few years ago, she said, her brothers forbade her from continuing her education. After four years of sitting at home, she was “broken.”
She gathered all her clothes and possessions from her room, dumped them in the back-yard, and sprinkled petrol over them. She set them on fire. Then, she says, she turned to her brothers: “You want me to be like that? I’m like that — I’m burning.” They relented, and she eventually studied English at Sana’a University, before the war got her thinking about a stable career like nursing.
Across town, near the University of Jordan, Sala Khaled, who moved to Amman with her family in 2015, also talks about a silver lining to the hardships of war. It’s not that an elder generation of Yemenis suddenly became more open-minded, she says; it’s that they’re afraid. Parents, she said, think: “We have to find an alternative future for our daughters. So even if they’re not married, they can go to wherever.”
Khaled, who’s part of a venture called Innovative Yemen that aims to encourage entrepreneurs, sees social changes afoot as well. Even previously conservative friends have stopped wearing not only the face-veil but the staple black abaya, and in some cases even headscarves. She’s now hunting around for scholarships to continue her studies abroad, something her family never would have countenanced before.
There’s a sense of transience in Amman. “We don’t know if the war’s ending tomorrow or after 10 years,’’ says Al-Nadheri, of #TransitYouth. “If we’re staying here or leaving to another country.”
There have been comings and goings at the Obock camp in Djibouti, too. Locals described the scenes early on, when boatloads of refugees were arriving daily. Restaurants offered free meals of Yemeni spicy grilled fish for the new arrivals, as they waited at the port for their cases to be processed.
But many have moved on. Djibouti’s government estimates that more than 20,000 Yemenis have passed through the country since 2015. The camp hosted more than 6,000 Yemenis at its peak; the number is now less than one-fifth of that. The war hasn’t eased; it’s just harder to get out.
Those still in Obock probably aren’t going anywhere. Around the tents, workers have been busy erecting more permanent structures paid for by Saudi Arabia. “At the beginning, we thought these people would stay one or two months,’’ says Hossein Hassan Darar, director of Djibouti’s refugee agency. “But I think it will be protracted and they will stay for a long time.”
In late afternoon, a boy seizes a September gale that sends his red kite soaring. On the other side of the camp, a white kite’s tail rips above. Then, a black kite snakes high up in the distance. All three colors of the Yemeni flag.
As Yemenis anchor their lives here, there have been births, marriages and deaths. In May, 22-year-old Niyala Salem married Abdu Ibrahim, a shy guard at the camp. She wore a white dress, and there was music, Yemeni and African.
Salem, in a black face-veil, works as a nutritionist at the camp’s clinic. She’s made friends with two other young women, Iyhan and Fatima, who also have jobs there. All of them help support their families with their income, though they insist that women in Yemen worked before the war too. They tick off some of the reasons why people are no longer arriving at Obock. Few fishing boats are willing to make the trip; people don’t have money to pay smugglers; roads to the coast are closed and drivers demand high fees.
Salem says she lost her brother during the war. She won’t say how. She takes her husband’s hand as they walk out of the clinic tent.
“As soon as the war finishes,’’ she says, “we’ll go back.”
(Reporting for this article was supported by a Media Fellowship through the initiative on Religion and the Global Framing of Gender Violence, Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University.)
— With assistance by Samuel Dodge