Yemeni Youth Speak: “We Are Stranded”
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a two-article package. The other article is “Yemen: Chaos, War, and Higher Education.”
Trapped, isolated, and often forgotten. That is the situation of many Yemeni youth, wherever they live, who are seeking education and, ultimately, employment.
As a result of the ongoing civil war in Yemen and the bombing by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, Yemeni youth often don’t have electricity, health care, transportation or enough food, just like the rest of their families. They usually don’t have access to the Internet either. As a result, their calls of distress are rarely heard.
Their universities have been bombed. If they attended universities abroad, their families can no longer afford to support them and their government scholarships have stopped coming. (A government official recently published a statement saying such funding will start up again. Many students remain skeptical.)
Young people inside Yemen who can speak English or another second language face high barriers in applying for foreign scholarships. Many of the embassies, nonprofit organizations and testing centers that administer scholarships have closed and their staff have fled.
Here we let six Yemeni youth speak for themselves.
In the Yemeni Highlands: Displaced, But Still Hopeful
Two years ago, when 22-year-old Haneen Mahmoud had to leave her house near the airport in Taiz, a city still on the front lines of Yemen’s conflict, she thought she would be back at home and in her classes soon.
Now she is still far from the university she was attending, Taiz University, and living in her grandmother’s house with her mother and two sisters in Ibb city. One of her sisters has had to change schools three times in the two years since the family’s displacement.
Her father, a doctor, was out of work for a year. Now he works with an international non-governmental organization in Taiz, about three hours away, and the family hasn’t seen him since June.
Haneen can only occasionally access the Internet. Electricity depends on a solar generator that her grandmother bought by selling her gold jewelry. When Haneen’s phone is charged and she has the money for SIM cards preloaded with data access, she can communicate with her friends or search for ways to get back to university. Her five closest friends have moved to Saudi Arabia. Food is available, but expensive due to the war; the price of gasoline is high, driving up the cost of transportation.
In Taiz, Haneen was in her second year studying management. After her family was forced out of their home and she realized the situation was dragging on, she went back to the university to try to get an official transcript showing the work she had done. But there were no staff in the offices that provide such paperwork.
Taiz University reopened in July, but her family couldn’t move back into their old home as it is still in a conflict zone. Monitors on the ground in Taiz still describe it as a place where the residents live in fear of snipers, mortars, and land mines. In addition, her grandmother’s house is a three-hour trip from the university campus. “I can’t commute for six hours a day,” she says.
She wanted to apply to Sana’a University, since the capital city is under complete control of one military faction, the Houthis, and thus more stable. But other displaced students have had the same idea, so places for them are limited. In addition, Sana’a University does not offer the “administrative sciences” major she has been pursuing, so she would need to start all over again in a new academic discipline.
She can’t join a private university because she can’t afford the tuition of about $500 a year. Her father attended university in Poland, so she thinks he might be open to her studying abroad, but she doesn’t speak English or another foreign language. Before she could apply for a scholarship abroad, she would need to find the money for classes, tutoring, and an expensive exam to prove her competency.
Going back to school is Haneen’s first priority, but she has many other hopes. “I would like to feel safe, feel stable and feel like we have a future to look forward to,” she says.
A Painful Arrest in Pakistan
When Sayyaf Amer thought about quitting his studies in Peshawar, Pakistan, he got a very clear message from his family: “Don’t come back to Yemen. Do anything to complete your studies in Pakistan, or else find another country to move to.”
Sayyaf is close to completing his master’s degree in communication engineering at the University of Engineering and Technology in Peshawar. He only needs another $1,020. Like other Yemeni students abroad, he has faced difficulties because the Yemen government halted scholarship payments.
For Sayyaf, who was first awarded a scholarship in April 2012, his financial problems started early. Even his first payment was late and he had to miss one semester. Nevertheless, he finished his bachelor’s degree in three-and-a-half years instead of the usual five years it usually takes in Pakistan. He then applied for a master’s degree using the financial support allocated for his five-year scholarship.
Last January, Yemeni students in Pakistan demonstrated at their embassy in Islamabad asking for their financial support to be expedited. But the Yemeni ambassador called for Pakistani security to break up the demonstration. Sixteen students were arrested, including Sayyaf. “It was a sad moment in my life,” he said. “It is still painful to remember to this day.”
Pakistani security arrested the students and transferred them to a police station where they were asked to sign a pledge that they wouldn’t demonstrate again in the future. But the students refused to sign even after they were threatened with a transfer to Rawalpindi prison, infamous for overcrowded, unsanitary, and brutal conditions.
“It’s our constitutional right to demonstrate asking for our rights, and Yemeni embassies are Yemen territories, so the Pakistani security forces had no right to arrest us,” Sayyaf said.
The students were released six hours following their arrest, after the deputy prime minister of Yemen intervened.
Two hundred and fifty four Yemeni students are enrolled in Pakistani universities, but only 70 of them receive financial support from Yemen. The monthly financial support is $450 for undergraduate students and $600 for students working toward a master’s degree or doctorate, according to Sayyaf who is also a member of Yemeni Students Federation in Pakistan, a student advocacy organization.
“We are only asking our government to provide us with basic support for tuition, food and housing,” he said. “It’s not too much to ask.”
Stuck Halfway to a Degree
Hadeel Alawami has two wishes. The first is to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in architecture. The second is to see her family leave Yemen.
Hadeel, 19, has been attending Sana’a University, in the capital—the part of Yemen under the control of the Houthi rebels. The university year stops and starts, she says, making it difficult to get an education. Lately the professors have been on strike to protest not having received their salaries. The country’s two halves have fought over control of its central bank, and many civil servants, including the faculty members of public universities, have not been paid.
Hadeel spends her time reading, helping her mother around the house, and searching for scholarships online. “War has changed our lives completely,” she says.
Two years ago, the situation was totally different for Hadeel. She says she was a diligent student and community activist, cleaning mosques, visiting the sick, and distributing food baskets to poor families.
All of her friends who worked with her have left Yemen, she says. “Since the entry of the Houthis into Sana’a (beginning in September of 2014), the security situation has deteriorated and it got worse after the (Saudi-led) coalition began its attacks.”
Hadeel applied for a scholarship in Turkey and is still waiting for the results. She doesn’t speak English and wasn’t planning to study it until after she got her degree.
Hadeel’s father is a professor in the faculty of sharia and law at Sana’a University and her mother is a social worker. Her sister studies alongside Hadeel in the same major and at the same university. Two brothers are in school. Her older brother studies chemical engineering in Algeria. The family sends him $100 a month, which is equivalent to her mother’s full salary. The family used to send him $200 a month, but like other professors, her father hasn’t been paid for six months.
The family also rents out part of their home. The government-supplied electricity has been cut off since September of 2015, but like many others, her family gets a small amount of electricity from solar panels.
“My wish is to see my family going to a place where we feel peace; a place where we can live without all these soldiers,” says Hadeel. Oh yes, and she would like to get her degree.
A Father and a Student in Malaysia
Three days before AbdelAziz Al-Raimi was scheduled to go to Malaysia to start working toward his Ph.D., Houthi forces entered Sana’a, Yemen’s capital city. The Sana’a airport was closed. He got toHadhramaut, another airport in Yemen, and managed to fly to Kuala Lumpur by a circuitous route that included Doha and Kuwait.
Arriving in Malaysia did not end AbdelAziz’s struggle, though. He had difficulty paying his tuition in the first year, because his scholarship from the Yemen government only covered $3,000 of the $7,000 in fees. In his second year, delays in the payment of government scholarship funds made matters even worse.
AbdelAziz, now 37, actually began his academic career in Malaysia, studying nursing science and community health at the University of Malaya. Later, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Sana’a University, in Yemen. In 2009, he got a scholarship to study for his master’s degree in community health at Assiut University in Egypt. He returned to Yemen, where it took him a year to get an application approved for a scholarship to earn a Ph.D.
He has three children, two in school. He says having children, while rewarding, is also distracting. “Instead of focusing on my studies, my main concern became how to make ends meet for me and my family every month,” said AbdelAziz.
Politics has sometimes created problems for AbdelAziz and other Yemeni students in Malaysia. They sent a collective complaint to Yemeni authorities about a financial officer at the embassy, who they said was rude and dropped students’ names from the list of those approved for scholarships with no explanation. The officer was fired, but the Houthis in Sana’a did not support the dismissal.
The Houthis said they would only send financial support for Yemeni students if the financial officer was rehired. For seven months, until January of this year, the Yemeni students lived without financial support.
“When this happened, we wrote an open letter to the Houthis, signed by dozens of students here in Malaysia, asking them to set students aside from the political conflict,” said AbdelAziz. The students also conducted sit-ins at the Yemeni embassy. “We wanted the authorities in Sana’a, and Aden, to hear our voices, but every time the only answer would be, ‘Yemen is at war now.’”
Yemeni students in Malaysia also tried to reach out to international organizations including the United Nations, AbdelAziz said. Two students managed to get refugee status.
AbdelAziz can’t take a part-time job, since the authorities in Malaysia don’t permit foreign students to work: students have been deported for violating these regulations. He is left wondering how he can feed his family, pay the rent and pay for his studies.
For a Saudi-born Yemeni, an Education Cut Short
Mona Alsamey, now 22, grew up in Saudi Arabia. But she longed to study in her homeland, Yemen. She managed to make it—but only for seven months.
Now she is back in Saudi Arabia with her family, including her three brothers and seven sisters. Her Yemeni parents have lived in Saudi Arabia for 35 years. When she first asked to go to Yemen, her father initially refused, since it would involve her traveling and living alone.
It took her two years to persuade her father to relent and then to get her high school diploma endorsed by Yemen. In 2014, she began to study economics at Taiz University.
“I was very excited, feeling so empowered to study in my country,” said Mona. “But the war was more powerful than my dream.” During Mona’s time in Taiz, she led a small voluntary group with two other students to provide financial and moral support for students and their families affected by the war who needed clothing or food.
The armed conflict reached Taiz, coming close to the campus. In the beginning, the students would demonstrate against the Houthis. “But our shouting would be faced by bullets,” she said. A fellow student was killed in the protests. Mona didn’t mind waiting long hours after lectures for transport back to her housing, but the violence became too much.
Taiz University was closed for a year and Mona had to go home. While the university was closed, it was bombed.
Her colleagues have split into three groups. Some returned to Taiz to study after the university was reopened in July 2016. Some went abroad to complete their studies. Some tried to resume studying in the area in Yemen where they were forced to move.
Mona keeps in touch with some of the students she got to know at the university. She has heard the university might have to close due to its inability to pay its professors.
(Professors at Yemen’s public universities are civil servants. As a result, they are victims of the monetary crisis caused by the malfunctioning of the country’s central bank.) Students and their families are impoverished by conditions the war has brought on, and although university fees are very low, students are unable to pay even the small expenses they have, such as transportation and books.
“I know from my colleagues that the university might stop operating again,” she said.
Mona says that the short period she spent in Yemen was the best period of her life. She felt independent and fulfilled her dream of studying in her home country. She enjoyed being active in helping others.
She speaks proudly about her university and professors: “It was an excellent semester. I had the best professors, and we had a great positive energy, despite the political circumstances.”
Despite her parents’ pleas, she doesn’t want to attend university anywhere else. She is waiting for peace so she can return to her homeland.
An Aspiring Dentist in Russia
Marwa, a 26-year-old Yemeni student attending a university in Moscow, left her family in Yemen to study dentistry seven years ago, after receiving a government scholarship. As the only daughter of her parents—she has two brothers—she says it was a tough decision to make.
Marwa has earned her bachelor’s degree and is in the last semester of earning her master’s degree. She says she is one of approximately 700 Yemeni students in Russia who have been cut off from financial support from Yemeni authorities.
When her payments stopped coming last year, she looked for a part-time job, even though she can’t officially have one, since Russian regulations don’t allow part-time jobs for student-visa holders.
(Her full name and the name of her university have been withheld as a result of her tenuous legal situation.) “Being a woman who wears a headscarf makes things even harder,” she said. She began teaching Arabic to non-native speakers, and juggles her part-time work, her studies, and an internship at a dental clinic.
Marwa says her scholarship has often arrived irregularly during her time as a student, but in her early years in Russia her family was able to help her out.
Now things are different. Soldiers of a militia, whose alliances were not clear, killed her diplomat father in front of their house in Aden in 2014. (Her mother had already passed away in 2007.)
Marwa is supposed to receive $1,800 every three months from the Yemeni government. The $600 a month is supposed to cover all her expenses including tuition. But the irregular payments came to a complete halt when the Houthis entered Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. “We used to manage with a month’s delay, but it wasn’t possible to manage six months’ delay,” she said.
Moscow is a sprawling city, and Marwa spends as long as three hours each day traveling back and forth to a job teaching Arabic to another student. Despite all of her problems, she wants to stay in Russia and complete her Ph.D. “Here I have difficulties that I am used to,” she says. “But I am afraid of new difficulties in a new place that I am not used to.”