Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Yemen's war destroys lives - even beyond its own borders

Thousands have died and the economy has been derailed. For those abroad, including
embassy staff and students, that means no money.

*At the Yemeni embassy in Beirut, a DIY kitchen stands in the hall to the left. To the right, on the ground, a few pillows lay, leant on by a group of young men in their early 20s.

The young men are Yemeni students who have taken the embassy as a shelter for more than two years. I met them last month, but they did not hold any hope my interviews would solve their plight.

Nothing has improved for the students, even after Middle East Eye’s coverage last year; in fact, their misery has only grown larger.

The 76 students, some of their country's brightest, came to Lebanon on Yemeni scholarships in 2014 - but have received no financial support since. They were forced to go to classes and survive on their own in pricey Beirut.

With no financial support from the ministry and with families struggling with the raging war in Yemen, it has been impossible for the students to afford basic expenses including food, accommodation and medicine.

The makeshift kitchen for students in the Beirut embassy (MEE/Afrah Nasser)

Out of helplessness and protest, the students have turned to the embassy for refuge, and sleep in its empty rooms. The embassy has not been able to help them more than that - the embassy’s staff also have not been paid for nearly a year.

The humanitarian tragedy of Yemen war is not only seen in the raging famine in the country, but it is also felt beyond its borders. Yemenis dependent on stipends from Yemen’s public institutions are left to suffer.

Yemen’s economy has been in major decline, as the various rival groups fight over control of the central bank. Unpaid salaries for civil servants is the latest symptom - more than a million people have not been paid for three months, a situation that has had a catastrophic impact on millions of households.

Yemeni diplomatic staff have the same problem - whether in Lebanon, Malaysia, Sudan, Morocco or beyond. This comes after the Houthi-run Supreme Political Council, which controls the central bank, decreed that all embassies were their enemies and cut salaries.

Clearly, the economy has become a bargaining chip between the Houthi-Saleh alliance on one hand and Abd Rabbuh Hadi’s internationally recognised government on the other.

The embassy’s staff who spoke on the condition of anonymity stressed that it has been extremely difficult for the students and the embassy staff to file complaints to the “right” authorities, as there are a growing division and power struggle between Saleh and the Houthis’ newly-formed cabinet and the internationally recognised Hadi government-in-exile.

Both students and the embassy staff in Beirut express great despair.

"We were granted the scholarship because we were the country’s brightest students, then to end up in this agony is devastating,” said Ahmed al-Hamadi, a 24-year-old electronic student.

"Many students have mentally collapsed and some were put in jail because they were unable to afford the expense of renewing their student’ residency. From a bright student, you end up facing starvation and being regarded as a criminal."

No money, more problems

Students find it difficult to focus on studying when their empty stomachs churn, and the costs of accommodation and transport constantly haunt their thoughts.

Lebanese laws make it also impossible for the students to work. “It is illegal for anyone in Lebanon with a student visa to work," said Ali al-Ramim, 25, a mechanics student. "We could be caught, then imprisoned, subjected to deportation and a $5,000 fine."

All warring parties are blamed for the staff’s unpaid salaries and unpaid financial support to the students.

A photo of the students recently in the embassy in Beirut (MEE/Afrah Nasser)

“The division in Yemen’s government has also divided Yemen’s crumbling economy which should have been impartial, and we are the ones paying a high price,” one embassy staff member said.

“Today, when Yemenis are not killed by rockets, starving to death inside the country, or being displaced at a refugee camp in neighbouring countries or somewhere else, humiliation and despair accompany those who are abroad.”

“This war has caused horrific damage in every corner in Yemen, from Hadramout to Saadah and it also hunts those who escaped the war,” Mohammed Othman, 23, an electronics student said. 

*This article was published first in Middle East Eye, today.