‘We cry in our hearts. We cry to God:’ Forgotten Yemeni refugees of Djibouti

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Thousands of Yemenis have sought refuge in a desolate, sun-baked desert camp in the tiny nation of Djibouti. (AN/ Rua'a Alameri)
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Yemeni children in Markazi refugee camp in Obock, Djibouti. (AN/ Rua'a Alameri)
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A playground in Markazi refugee camp in Obock, Djibouti. (AN/ Rua'a Alameri)
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A kitchen used by one family in Markazi refugee camp in Obock, Djibouti. (AN/ Rua'a Alameri)
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A makeshift outdoor shower in Markazi refugee camp in Obock, Djibouti. (AN/ Rua'a Alameri)
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Housing units in Markazi refugee camp in Obock, Djibouti, built by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center. (UNHCR)
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Updated 02 March 2020

‘We cry in our hearts. We cry to God:’ Forgotten Yemeni refugees of Djibouti

  • As strife-torn Yemen marks its unity day, thousands of Yemeni refugees in neighboring Djibouti say they have little to cheer about
  • Perched strategically on the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is the only country in the world to welcome refugees from Yemen

DUBAI: Yemen this week celebrated its national unification day, marking 28 years since the north and south were united — only to be torn apart again by the current war. 

Across the Red Sea from Yemen’s coastline, however, a forgotten segment of the country’s vast displaced population would have found little time for the festivities on Tuesday.

Thousands of Yemenis have sought refuge in a desolate, sun-baked desert camp in the tiny nation of Djibouti.

Perched strategically on the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is one of the very few countries in the world to welcome refugees from Yemen. 

Associate reporting officer for the the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Djibouti, Vanessa Panaligan, told Arab News that many Yemenis had fled their homeland in search of safety. 

“From the stories I keep hearing, they were tired of seeing bombs and constant fighting in their neighborhood,” Panaligan said.

“They thought, ‘I’ve had it, we’ve stayed long enough and it’s time to get going because you never know when you are next, or if you would survive the next couple of months,’” she said.

Four years of war in Yemen have displaced more than 2 million people and left 75 percent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.

UNHCR said there has been a spike in the number of refugees coming from Yemen in the past six months. 

From the end of last year, after the killing of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh by the Houthi rebels, the situation deteriorated significantly, leading to “a sharp surge in new arrivals” in Djibouti. 

Almost 200 refugees arrived in December, and more than 100 in January and February. 

Panaligan said that although the influx has tapered off, the conflict shows no signs of letting up, forcing the agency to remain on standby with a contingency plan in case of an emergency influx.

“The sharp increase from what we are used to seeing is definitely a cause for alarm,” Panaligan said. “We’re planning for an emergency.” 

In 2015, 38,000 Yemenis traveled to Djibouti. However, due to the harsh living conditions, many left to go elsewhere, while others returned to Yemen. The current population of Yemeni refugees in Djibouti is almost 4,000 — of which 1,900 live at the Markazi refugee camp in the port town of Obock.

FAMILIES IN EXILE: ‘I would rather die here than go back to the war’




Ali Thabit family

Shortly after the war began, Nathair Ali Thabit, 37, took his wife, Goma Salaamy, 27, and their three children, Nadi, 8, Malka, 9, and Atif, 2, and traveled to Mokha port, where he paid 10,000 Yemeni rials ($40) to board a boat to Obock. They left Yemen at 8 p.m. and arrived in Djibouti the next morning. 
“We were living in Dhubab and that was on one of the fronts,” Ali Thabit said. “There were forces fighting from all directions and we were right in the middle of all of that. So one night we decided to leave everything behind — our home and belongings — and flee.”
Goma: We vomited a lot because we are not used to the sea, it was the first time we went on a boat.
Nathair: We left everything behind, we didn’t take anything with us, not even clothes. In all honesty we are not used to living life like this. In Yemen I was a diver and fisherman. I could provide for my family.
Goma: Now we live on handouts and rations and I try to sell bags I sew. At least we are safe.
Nathair: They give us rice and oil, bread and water. It’s little but it’s better than nothing at all. I haven't tasted meat, chicken or fish in 3 years.
Goma: I try to sell bags, but it’s not guaranteed that they will get sold.
Nathair: We used to sell them for 1000 DJF ($5), but now we try and sell them for 500 DJF for the children, because at night they want juice or biscuit. To try and take their mind of things we take them to the beach for fun, but we are in the middle of nowhere so there’s not much we can do.
Goma: The heat is also unbearable, my youngest gets heat rash, he can’t handle it.
Nathair: We cry in our hearts, we don’t show anyone, we just cry to god.


 

 




Meha Abdul Sala

The 35-year-old mother lives in the camp with her daughter Asiah, 11. She had to sell all her gold to pay $560 to get her three children and herself to Obock in 2015.
“We had no choice because of the war,” Abdul Saleh said. “At least it’s safe in the camp. I was happy and comfortable in my country, I wish I could go back. I had a shop. It helped me look after my children. I’m divorced. But because of this war we had to throw all that away. Now I make bags to sell to earn some money. But sometimes I don’t have enough money to buy thread, so I have to wait until something comes along.
“I try to sell bags to try and earn money to get food for my children. The food they give us is enough to get by, but it’s not the same when you have your own money.”
Aisha said that she attends school at the camp, but also helps her mother make the bags. “I like to play with skipping ropes. I miss my country and my friends,” she said.


 

 




Ali Ibrahim

The 51-year-old father was relatively lucky and managed to get his family of 11 on a boat to Obock without having to pay.
“As soon as we arrived at the Djibouti port, they welcomed us,” he said. “The (government officials) were very kind to us. They gave us water, food and blankets. We stayed in the port for one night. The next day they sent us to the camp.
“Life here is at least safe. We get rations, but the most important thing is safety. They give us water, oil, lentils, flour, rice.
“They give us gas and some pans to cook with, but it’s not enough, so we have to go to the mountains to get wood.
“We are not used to this life — we grew up with electricity, gas and proper cookers. But we have to deal with this to survive.
Ali Ibrahim said his village in Yemen was near a military camp and close to the fighting.
“There was fire from all directions. We didn’t even get a chance to take anything with us, we left everything behind. The whole neighborhood left together.
“If there is stability and safety in Yemen, I would return. But I would rather die here than go back to the war.”


 

Refugees arrive in Obock and are then sent to reception centers, they are then sent to Markazi camp where they are registered, and given food and water. 

The tiny coastal country is home to more than 22,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, making up 2.5 percent of its 900,000 population. 

Houssein Hassan Darar, executive secretary of the Office of National Assistance for Refugees and Displaced Persons (ONARS), proudly explained his country’s history of helping other nationalities.

Since gaining independence from France in 1977, Djibouti had welcomed tens of thousands of refugees from nations including Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, he said. 

In response to the growing refugee population, Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh signed two decrees in December to allow better access to social services and employment.

The government said it was building a new school for refugees in Obock.

Refugees with teaching experience are able to work in the existing schools, and are paid and trained by Djibouti’s education ministry, Panaligan said. 

In Markazi camp, most of the population is under the age of 18, but fewer than 300 primary students and 20 secondary students are enrolled in school.

Despite attempts to house the influx of Yemeni refugees, living conditions in the camp are harsh. 

When Arab News visited the camp in Obock last year, many refugees were living in tents made of thin fabric to protect them from the desert environment and endured scorching temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius as well as sandstorms. 

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center built 300 housing units in January to ease their suffering, spokesman Dr. Samer Al-Jatili told Arab News. 

The housing units hold two rooms. One is the living space, with a kitchen and living room, while the other is the sleeping area. A small closet holds a shower area, and the floor lifts up to work as a toilet. 

However, the camp lacks running water and electricity.

Panaligan said that of the 300 housing units, 250 were given to families and 50 to single people. An average family has five or six members.

Refugees are given food rations, but many have said it is not enough. The UNHCR reported that in the past few months, about 164 refugees at Markazi were at risk of malnutrition.

Nathair Ali Thabit, 34, who has a family of five, told Arab News last year that refugees get two meals a day, but no meat or vegetables. 

“We have bread and tea in the morning and in the evening rice,” Thabit said. “I haven’t tasted meat, chicken or fish in two years.

“My children sometimes want biscuits or milk, so I try to distract them by taking them to the beach and playing with them.

“We are in the middle of nowhere, so there’s not much we can do” he said. 

“We cry in our hearts — we don’t show anyone, we just cry to God.”

Panaligan said that despite the challenges of life in Djibouti, Yemeni refugees come for safety, which is missing in their homeland. 

“Many have come to join their families who left Yemen last year, too,” she said. 

FASTFACTS

The current population of Yemeni refugees in Djibouti is almost 4,000


Accusations of serial assault spark new #MeToo wave in Egypt

Updated 13 July 2020

Accusations of serial assault spark new #MeToo wave in Egypt

  • Activists say the case shows that misogyny cuts across the country’s stark class lines
  • In Egypt, sexual assault complaints have typically involved street harassment

CAIRO: Their accounts are similar. The girls and women describe meeting the young man — a former student at Egypt’s most elite university — in person and online, followed by deceit, then escalating sexual harassment, assault, blackmail or rape.
Some were minors when the alleged crimes took place. In all, more than 100 accusers have emerged online in the past two weeks.
It’s resulted in a new #MeToo firestorm on social media, and the arrest of the suspect last week from his home in a gated community outside Cairo.
Activists say the case shows that misogyny cuts across the country’s stark class lines; many in Egypt have previously portrayed harassment as a problem of poor urban youth.
Women’s rights champions hope the authorities’ swift response signals change in how Egyptian society handles accusations of sexual assault.
“What’s before this case is totally different from what’s after,” said Nihad Abuel-Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights and a lawyer representing some of the alleged victims.
Sexual assault and harassment are deep-seated problems in Egypt, where victims must also fight the undercurrent of a conservative culture that typically ties female chastity to a family’s reputation. In courts, the burden of proof lies heavily on the victim of such crimes.
In a statement, the public prosecutor’s officer said the accused man acknowledged he blackmailed at least six girls, saying he would send sensitive photos of them to their families if they cut ties. Several attempts by The Associated Press to contact him or his lawyer were unsuccessful.
Amr Adib, Egypt’s most prominent TV host, said in a recent episode that he’d spoken with the young man’s father, who occupies a high-ranking position at a telecommunication company. He said his son dismissed the allegations.
At least 10 women have officially reported their claims, according to Abuel-Komsan, of the women’s rights center. Activists also set up the Instagram account @assaultpolice to collect allegations, said Sabah Khodir, a US-based writer who helps run the account. She said there are more than 100 accounts.
“We are demanding to be listened to … We are just using what we have, lending our voices to hopefully create some kind of change,” she said.
A court has ordered the accused to remain in custody pending an investigation into an array of accusations that include attempted rape, blackmail and indecent assault, according to a five-page statement by the public prosecutor. In the same statement, the prosecutor urged more alleged victims to come forward.
Last week, the government of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi moved to amend the country’s criminal law to increase protections for the identities of sexual assault victims, which activists have welcomed. The amendment still needs parliamentary approval and El-Sisi’s signature to be made law.
The allegations against the student cover a period of at least three years.
Many of the anonymous accounts appear to be from fellow students at the American International School, one of the country’s most expensive private high schools, and the American University in Cairo, which school officials said the accused left in 2018. It would appear that he then enrolled at the European Union Business School in Spain, in an online program last year.
In February, he spent three weeks at its Barcelona campus, but the school expelled him after an accusation of online harassment that was subsequently proved false, said Claire Basterfield, a spokesperson for the EUBS. The school has filed a 54-page criminal complaint with the Spanish police, seeking further investigation into his actions.
The head of the American University in Cairo, Francis Ricciardone, said the university has a zero-tolerance policy concerning sexual harassment, but that he would not comment on an ongoing case.
According to accusations posted on social media in the past two weeks, the former student would mine the pool of mutual friends on Facebook, online groups or school clubs. He would start with flattery, then pressure the women and girls to share intimate photos that he later used to blackmail them to have sex with him. If they did not, he would threaten to send the pictures to their family.
In some cases, he “attracted their sympathy by claiming he was going through a crisis,” then lured them to his home in an upscale compound where he sexually assaulted them, the prosecutor’s statement alleged.
In Egypt, sexual assault complaints have typically involved street harassment. During and after the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, women were frequently harassed, groped — and in some cases, beaten and sexually assaulted — during mass protests.
This time, there are signs of wider ripples throughout the society. The current series of complaints has prompted Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s foremost religious institution, to speak out on sexual harassment and assault, even challenging the widely held belief that a woman is at fault if her clothing is less than modest. It’s a departure from the norm for the conservative Muslim majority country where most women wear headscarves.
There are also other corners where accusations of sexual harassment are emerging, such as in civil society groups and businesses.
Two rights groups said they fired one employee and suspended another, and opened investigations after allegations of sexual misconduct against them were made public. Authorities also detained a prominent publisher over the weekend after a poet filed a complaint with the Cairo police, accusing him of sexually harassing her, the state-run Al-Ahram reported. The publisher denied the allegations in a Facebook posting. He was released late Sunday on 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($313) in bail, pending an investigation.
The recent cases — reaching into the Egyptian elite — have “refuted all previous arguments and justifications for harassment, from poverty to illiteracy and things like that,” Abuel-Komsan said.