Opinion: Yemen needs a rescue package — before it's too late




Opinion: Yemen needs a rescue package, before it's too late

A humanitarian worker from NRC visits families for assessment in Yemen. Photo by: Mohammed Darweesh / NRC

A humanitarian worker from NRC visits families for assessment in Yemen. Photo by: Mohammed Darweesh / NRC

This is a tale of three crises.

The first is the man-made war and the second is the floods.

The third is COVID-19.

Battles force families to flee their houses amid spread of COVID-19. Al-Swaidah camp is home for around 500 displaced families from Marib and Nihm. Photo by: Hassan Al-Homaidi / NRC

Battles force families to flee their houses amid spread of COVID-19. Al-Swaidah camp is home for around 500 displaced families from Marib and Nihm. Photo by: Hassan Al-Homaidi / NRC

For most people in Yemen, the coronavirus is not their main worry. It is catastrophic, yes, but we already live in a catastrophe. How can we face a pandemic when our health workers have not been paid for years? Or when our biggest health problem is not having enough food?

A recently displaced family at a camp in Hajjah governorate, Yemen. Photo by: Mohammed Awadh / NRC

A recently displaced family at a camp in Hajjah governorate, Yemen. Photo by: Mohammed Awadh / NRC

Before the end of this year, at least 1 million more people in my country will go hungry. And now the funds for aid are so low that food distributions in the northern areas have been cut in half. There are more and more families begging on the street.

Because of fuel shortages since June, farmers can’t bring their animals to market. Where I work in Hajjah city, in the Northwest of the country, we only have water in the taps one day a month. My family tries to fill up enough containers and jerrycans with water to last all month.

Source: Shutterstock

Source: Shutterstock

Every day, there are families still arriving here, and that is on top of the 737,000 displaced people already in Hajjah and Hodeida. In some places, two families are sharing one tent. You can imagine how terrible this is in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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An NRC education team takes precautionary measures against COVID-19 during the distribution of high-energy biscuits to displaced families in Lahj governorate, Yemen. Photo by: Abdulfatah Al Jaboly / NRC

Photo by: Abdulfatah Al Jaboly / NRC

Nine-year-old Marwa Rasheed fled her home in Taiz, Yemen, and now lives in al-Meshqafa camp with her family. Photo by: Mahmoud Al-Filstini / NRC

An NRC staff member teaches displaced children how to wash their hands to protect themselves from COVID-19 at a camp in Amran, Yemen. Photo by: Ibrahim Al-Salmi / NRC

An NRC education team takes precautionary measures against COVID-19 during the distribution of high-energy biscuits to displaced families in Lahj governorate, Yemen. Photo by: Abdulfatah Al Jaboly / NRC

Photo by: Abdulfatah Al Jaboly / NRC

Nine-year-old Marwa Rasheed fled her home in Taiz, Yemen, and now lives in al-Meshqafa camp with her family. Photo by: Mahmoud Al-Filstini / NRC

An NRC staff member teaches displaced children how to wash their hands to protect themselves from COVID-19 at a camp in Amran, Yemen. Photo by: Ibrahim Al-Salmi / NRC

I have been a humanitarian worker for eight years in my home country of Yemen.

When I first started helping people back in 2009, it was as a deeply personal response to the families who had started arriving in my city of Harad, fleeing the border with Saudi Arabia. I joined a group of volunteers collecting food because we couldn’t sit there and do nothing, knowing that we could eat well and sleep well while these people starved.

Then one day, we were the ones fleeing. I packed my family into a rented car with some mattresses and water jugs, thinking it would only be for a few days. I stayed behind to close the apartment, and I remember the feeling when everyone started leaving the city on foot. No cars on the road — just people. There wasn’t time to think; I left everything, grabbing only my laptop bag. I even forgot my shoes.

Our things are still there in Harad, although by now they have probably been stolen. Our neighbors from that time have been scattered. We have lost so much more than a physical home.

That experience is part of the reason why I have to stay and deliver, despite the steep odds. The armed conflict, the crumbling economy, the shortages and difficulties getting goods — all this makes it challenging.

But if we don’t do it, who will?

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The Norwegian Refugee Council started its rapid response project in July 2018, two years ago. I remember meeting a family sheltering under a tree, after the fighting had reached Medi and Hairan. They had an empty flour bag that they were using as a bed. No blankets, no mattresses, no food. Just that empty flour packet.

We all cried when we saw that. I went back to our management team and said we must do something.

That first group we helped had over 900 people. Since then, this has become a big part of what the Norwegian Refugee Council does — according to our internal reports, we have now reached over 50,000 people immediately after displacement. We rent warehouses and position supplies in advance, ready for a new alert.

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"In some places, two families are sharing one tent. You can imagine how terrible this is in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic."


Humanitarian workers get supplies to some of the most isolated areas in Yemen. Sometimes, the team has to get out of the truck to help it get across roads damaged by five years of war and neglect. Video by: Hassan Mamoon / NRC

Humanitarian workers get supplies to some of the most isolated areas in Yemen. Sometimes, the team has to get out of the truck to help it get across roads damaged by five years of war and neglect. Video by: Hassan Mamoon / NRC

I go out for the distributions myself. Qarah is one of the hardest-to-reach locations, high in the mountains. The roads are so bad that we have to get out of the vehicle so it doesn’t get stuck. It’s just sky up there; you can see all the way to the border.

It has helped that some donors are willing to be flexible about where and when we respond so that we can be on the ground within days. Getting permission to travel can be difficult in areas near the fighting, but by now many of the authorities know us and respect our work. In Hajjah, we are often the first people called when a crisis happens, like the recent floods.

This rainy season is not like others. Day and night, it rains. Sixty thousand people have been affected here in the Hodeida area. I have met people living in the valleys of al-Zuhrah district, and their roofs have been swept off. One brother drowned trying to save the other. It is hard to sleep sometimes after hearing these stories. An old man told me his family has been living here for generations and they have not seen floods like this in 100 years.

We have had to change all our plans. Families we already helped are homeless again. But getting permission to shift supplies marked for “conflicted-affected” people to “flood-affected” people took time, and not all funders understand that families might need emergency help twice. In areas like Bani Othabi or al-Tuhyta, the conflict zones are always changing, so it is difficult to reach people within the usual time limits. More flexibility and quicker responses from donors would really help us all to cope with these unexpected changes.

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I think of all the things this country is capable of and all the things we have lost, like “al-zubdah” mangoes we grew on my parents’ farm. Their name means “butter” because that’s how they tasted. You can’t get the really good mangoes now; there is no water in the pipes to irrigate the fields. We used to export so much honey, before the war made that almost impossible.

Again and again, the people I meet just want to go home. “We don’t even need help,” they say. “Just let us go home and start our lives again.”


"It has helped that some donors are willing to be flexible about where and when we respond, so that we can be on the ground within days. Getting permission to travel can be difficult in areas near the fighting."


I want to tell the international community, especially those countries on the United Nations Security Council: We need this war to be over. The longer it goes on, the worse our situation becomes. The EU Humanitarian Air Bridge for flying in medicines and other urgent goods is a positive step, but what we really need is an agreement to remove the restrictions on our borders, ports, and airports, so enough food and fuel can enter and jobs have a chance to recover.

There must be a plan to pay doctors and other public employees their salaries so that Yemen can fight COVID-19. And aid organizations need enough funding to continue our work.

I told my team to stay home if they feel unsafe because of the coronavirus, but they want to continue. I have never thought about stopping. People need this assistance. But we can’t do it alone.


Credits

Written by Ali Alhajori, rapid response coordinator for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Hajjah and Hodeidah, Yemen

Additional photos by Anwar Abdu / NRC, Mohammed Obaid / NRC, Abdulwahab Al-Gonaymi / NRC, Hassan Al-Homaidi / NRC, and Ingrid Prestetun / NRC

Helen Morgan: Editor and producer

Layne Flower: Copy editor