Friday, August 24, 2018

Yemenis in Cairo: A life of despair

April 2018 - Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt.

*Very often I’m asked, “Where do Yemenis escape to? Syrians largely flee to Lebanon and Turkey, but where do Yemenis go?”

“The majority cannot afford to flee,” I respond. “For those who can afford it, their destination always depends on which country hasn’t closed its borders to Yemenis. Often, they head west, across the Red Sea, to Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Egypt — the latter having always been the closest escape and preferred getaway.”

Due to its proximity and the two countries’ historically close relations, Egypt has not only been a favored destination for many Yemenis, but is also an influential player in Yemen’s politics. Notably, Egypt played a significant role in the course of Yemen’s September 26 Revolution and the Civil War that followed (1962-1970). As part of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s expansionist foreign policy, Egypt supported the creation of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), with thousands of Egyptian troops deployed and weapons supplied. Around 15,000 Egyptian soldiers were killed, some of whom were buried in a graveyard in the heart of Sanaa, later named the “Egyptian martyrs’ cemetery.” At that time, Egypt opened its doors to numerous Yemeni revolutionary republicans, writers and activists, such as, Abdel Rahman al-Baydani, who presented a radio talk show on Cairo radio titled, “The Secrets of Yemen,” Ahmad Noman and Mohamed al-Zubairi, who established Al-Jam’iyah al-Yamaneya al-Kubra (The Grand Yemeni Association) in Cairo.

Many Yemenis have completed their university education in Cairo and made use of Egypt’s healthcare system, with both education and health care in Yemen being strained. Moreover, it is not unusual to find mixed-nationality families, due to intermarriages over the years. Such is the case for my own family, as two of my relatives married Egyptians and had children.

Egypt continues to play a role in Yemen’s ongoing conflict today. Since March 2015, it has been one of the members in the Saudi-led coalition that is fighting Houthis. While the details of what this actually involves are scant, we know that Egypt deployed around 8,000 ground troops in Yemen in 2015.

Despite this military intervention, Yemenis are still fleeing to Egypt. For many years, Yemen and Egypt had a mutual visa-free entry agreement, but, in 2013, things began to change. Egypt started to enforce visa requirements for Yemeni citizens, asking them to apply at the Egyptian embassy in Sanaa. Then, in 2014, the Egyptian embassy, like all other embassies in the city, was evacuated and Yemenis had to face fast-changing and complicated visa requirements and customs regulations stipulated by Egyptian authorities. Today, Yemenis under 16 and over 50 still benefit from free-visa entry, but all others must apply for a visa at the nearest Egyptian embassy. Yemenis coming to Egypt for medical treatment are exempted, but they must show an Egyptian medical report confirming their condition.

These restrictions are still relatively fair, in comparison to other countries that have made it almost impossible for Yemenis to enter. Many countries have imposed complicated and difficult visa requirements on Yemeni citizens, especially after the war broke out. For instance, Turkey, which used to have a free-visa policy for Yemenis, today requires that applicants prove that they have been to Turkey previously, otherwise their visa applications will not be processed. Jordan, which also used to have visa-free entry for Yemenis, now requires applicants to provide proof they have 6,000 euros in order to obtain a visa upon arrival. It is difficult to imagine the average citizen of a nation known as the poorest in the Arab world being able to afford such an exorbitant fee. The United Arab Emirates and the United States have made it clear that Yemeni citizens are unwelcome, and have enforced a total travel ban on Yemeni nationals.

The discrimination Yemenis face while applying for visas worldwide is a long story that requires a separate article. Those I spoke to shared a great deal of anguish and heartache regarding the process. Having said that, many also highlighted the relative ease with which Egypt grants some Yemenis six-month residency permits, which are then reviewed, with the potential for renewal.

The number of Yemenis in Egypt is on the rise. An estimated 1,000 people registered with the UNHCR in 2016, and around 4,000 in 2017, although these numbers are not reflective of the actual influx of Yemenis to the country. Many people do not register for refugee status, or use Egypt as a temporary destination on route to other countries. Several of those I spoke to tell stories of staying in Egypt for longer than they initially planned.

I spent time in Cairo myself from December 2017 till May 2018, seeking to meet Yemenis and document their stories.

Dokki, Cairo’s ‘Yementown’

Walking around the bustling Dokki area in Cairo nowadays gives you the impression that you are walking down the street in one of Yemen’s large cities. Since the 1990s, Yemenis have created a “little-Yemen” in Dokki, with restaurants, shops and cafes springing up as a result of increasing migration and the building of communities.

The various Yemeni dialects can be casually heard on the streets in Dokki, but the signs of war are also visible on many of the faces of those I saw and met. Some have obvious injuries to their faces, bandages on their arms or walk with the aid of crutches. Others may not have visible injuries, but show signs or speak of other forms of psychological distress, including many of my journalist colleagues. Militias, both from the north and south of Yemen, are largely responsible for this trauma.

Fugitive Yemeni journalists

Reporters Without Borders’ (RWB) ranked Yemen 167 out of 180 countries in its 2018 report, reflecting the deteriorating conditions for many who work in the media. Systematic patterns of arbitrary arrest, forced disappearances, media center closures, unfair prosecutions and trials — one of which resulted in a death sentence that was overturned under international pressure — are among the many violations Yemeni journalists have faced from all warring parties, as documented by Yemen’s Muwatana organization.

The attacks on Yemeni journalists were initially waged by Houthis, when they took over Sanaa in 2014. The shelling of the state television headquarters kicked off a series of attacks against media workers in Yemen. Many journalists point to Houthi leader Abdelmalek al-Houthi’s statement in 2016, when he said, “Media workers are more dangerous to our country than the nationalist and warring mercenaries,” as evidence of a deliberate campaign against them.

“If the Houthis were considered a governing authority, Yemen would have the fifth highest number of journalists in jail in the world, after Eritrea, and ahead of Azerbaijan and Vietnam,” the Committee to Protect Journalists asserted in December 2017. But the Houthis are not alone in their responsibility for the abuse of journalists. As the RWB report suggests, “In the part of the country controlled by the so-called legitimate government, journalists are often the victims of abuses by militias backed by the United Arab Emirates.”

While such reports paint the bigger picture, as far as freedom of the press in Yemen is concerned, they do not provide details of the numbers of people affected by the war. The dozens of Yemeni journalists who reside in Cairo today are not just displaced, they are fugitives. Some have escaped captivity, torture, death threats, or assassination attempts and are in hiding. Many of them are reluctant to be interviewed for fear of exposure. Most are traumatized, and worried about the safety of their families and friends back home. Though they told their stories to me in private, the fear of a backlash from Egyptian authorities made them afraid to go public with any details.

As I write this from the safety of my own refuge in Sweden, I have been reflecting on how to share the plight of the Yemeni community in Cairo without risking their lives or jeopardizing my own chances of getting back into Egypt to see my relatives and continue reporting.

The situation of Yemeni refugees receives little media attention. One Yemeni young man in Cairo told me, “Yemenis here are waiting, either for the war to end so they might return home, or for some other unknown end.”

There doesn’t currently seem to be an end in sight for the Yemen conflict, which has only grown in size and complexity in recent months. In the meantime, the attention of international media and humanitarian organizations is desperately needed to help alleviate the suffering of Yemenis, both inside and outside of Yemen.

*This essay was first written for and published in Mada Masr website.