Thursday, October 20, 2016

No Place Like Home: Yemen's Moualleds in Times of War

Photo courtesy:

*Who is a “Moualled”? In Yemeni society, the term is used to designate a person who has a non-Yemeni parent. It can also refer, in the most extreme cases of Yemeni xenophobia, to someone who has any non-Yemeni ethnic roots, even if it was a great grandfather. They would be designated according to those other roots, for instance, an Egyptian Moualled, or an Ethiopian Moualled and so forth. As an Ethiopian Moualled who is well aware of the complexity of such a dual identity, I can't but think of other Moualleds in these times of war in Yemen.

Two years have passed since the war began in Yemen. The vast majority of people are living under a suffocating siege while bombs rain down on them from the sky and an unending armed conflict threatens them from the ground.

Today, Yemen is under siege from the air, land, and sea. As a result, the country is witnessing one of the largest movements of displacement in the world reaching more than 3 million displaced. Yemenis have nowhere to escape to, however. For Moualleds, even if the chance of escaping presents itself, it is extremely difficult and complicated as they are living with a dual identity both culturally and on paper.

Before the war

To understand this complexity, a brief description of a Moualled's life before the war might help. There are no exact statistics about the numbers of Moualleds in Yemen because of the absence of state institutions responsible for this category of people. Furthermore, Moualleds themselves do not usually want to expose their other ethnic roots. This might be related to the complexity of civil laws in the two countries when it comes to carriers of dual passports.

From my personal experience in dealing with Ethiopian-Yemeni Moualleds in particular, I have found that large numbers have tried to hide their dual identity as a way to deal with the racist atmosphere in the country. In Yemen, many having dual citizenship might often lead to discrimination and ridicule.

Yemeni society is generally homogeneous and people tend to prefer a homogeneity. Large parts of society are suspicious of ethnic and cultural plurality and diversity. Moualleds, therefore, find themselves facing one of two hard choices: To expose their other identity and face the racist consequences or to hide it and struggle to prove that they are 100% Yemeni, including using only one passport.

Photo courtesy:

The war begins

Moualleds who decided to only have Yemeni citizenship and hide any other roots fell into a legal trap during the war. Many of them have regretted their choice, especially when several embassies announced that they were repatriating their citizens living in Yemen. Ethiopians quickly headed to their embassy including Ethiopian-Yemeni Moualleds despite the fact that many of them did not have the Ethiopian nationality. They were hoping that their Ethiopian roots would be recognized and that the embassy will repatriate them as well. But the lack of documentation meant that no help was provided.

A large number of Ethiopian-Yemeni Moualleds were unable to go to Addis Ababa despite being of Ethiopian origins. And this was the reason for regretting their choice of hiding their Ethiopian roots. Since they could not prove it with an ID or a passport. In fact the real dilemma lies in that the Yemeni civil law allows citizens to hold multiple passports, however, the Ethiopian does not.

Citizens or refugees?

Zaynab* is a Yemeni who carries both a Yemeni and an Ethiopian passport. She tells us how she moved to Ethiopia at the beginning of the war. Unlike most, Zaynab brandishes her Ethiopian roots with pride, challenging all the racist taboos. Ethiopia is her mother’s country but her Yemeni accent clearly shows that she is an Ethiopian-Yemeni Moualled. As a way to reconcile with her plural identity, she worked on getting an Ethiopian identity card long before the war started. Later she received her Ethiopian passport hiding the fact that she has another passport from the Ethiopian authorities. With the eruption of the war in 2015, she left to Addis Ababa like dozens of Moualleds who tricked the system and were holding an Ethiopian passport. Soon after, she arrived at her second country as a Moualled refugee. She was confused whether to present herself as a refugee or as a local.

Hassan* is another Ethiopian-Yemeni Moualled, but he did not mange to get to Ethiopia with his parents. As opposed to his parents who have dual citizenship, he did not want to have two passports. He only had a Yemeni one, and therefore, the embassy did not allow him to travel. Hassan tells us how it was hard for him to accept his Ethiopian origin because of the discrimination he faced as a child in Yemen. He wanted to be 100% Yemeni and be considered a first class citizen. Today, he regrets not getting his Ethiopian papers before the war.

Across the Red Sea

Zaynab and Hassan’s parents found the experience of crossing the Red Sea to Ethiopia complicated. Having Ethiopian papers they were in their own country, but in reality, they were refugees. Rather than feeling safe in their second country, they simply felt lost. Most Ethiopian-Yemeni Moualleds rely mainly on their social ties, whether their relatives or friends living in Ethiopia to get used to their new environment. They do not look for support from any governmental institutions or international organizations. In fact, the geographical and cultural proximity between Yemen and the African Horn is apparent in the long history of migration and travel between the two sides.

Despite the difference in language, Ethiopian-Yemeni Moualleds consider that Ethiopia is culturally very similar to Yemen. This reduces the feelings of alienation and helps them to reconcile with their new identity. At least that is what one would imagine.

No place like home

At the beginning of the war, around 200 thousand people fled Yemen,including 80 thousand Ethiopians. It is difficult to know the number of Moualleds among them because of the legal complexity, but it is likely that the numbers are very large. After a few months had passed many could not assimilate to their new identity and decided to return to Yemen. Today, around 1 million people have returned to Yemen.

Zaynab is one of those who returned. She did not like living in Ethiopia. It was not as beautiful as it used to be according to her. Her longing to Yemen was bigger than any other feeling, and after 4 months of trying to integrate, she packed her bags and went back home. She says: “No one dies before their time, I would prefer to die in my house in Sana'a than to live the rest of my life trying to get used to being a refugee, even if it was in my mother’s country.” Hassan’s father also came back after a few months to Aden. Hassan tells me that his father’s experience as a refugee was difficult. At the end, longing for Yemen was too strong. I spoke to Hassan’s father to understand the real reason behind his decision to come back. He told me with confidence: “One’s pride lies in one's country.”

*This article was originally published on on the 17th of October, 2016.
* The names of Zaynab and Hassan have been changed for their legal safety.