Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Between Despair and Hope: a Yemeni Entrepreneur’s Story in Sana’a

Saeed Alfagieh, 27, founded “Ana Mehani” in Sana’a end 2015,
after winning the first place at a 2014 entrepreneurship contest.

*While the surrealistic and tragic events in Yemen spin us all around, I need to take a moment to tell one story, just one personal story, from Sana’a, about defiance-pain-and-more-pain-despair-and-resilience (yes, just like that, in that order, all linked in a row, because that’s how my family and friends I talk to in Sana’a feel).

* * * *

When Forbes did a few months ago a feature on this inspiring young Yemeni man, Saeed Alfagieh, I believed I had my new hero. Despite a great deal of obstacles, Saeed developed his company “Ana Mehani” midst of the raging war in Sana’a, earning a name among the 100 best Arab startups for 2017 by World Economic Forum.

Saeed Alfagieh, 27, founded “Ana Mehani” in Sana’a end 2015, after winning the first place at a 2014 entrepreneurship contest and obtaining a financial support. Ana Mehani is an off-and-online social labor and marketplace platform that aims to generate jobs opportunities while the country is suffering from about 80% unemployment rate. So far, it covers 6 Yemeni governorates, including Sana’a - it receives daily more than 300 applications and has created more than 40,000 job opportunities.

One of Ana Mehani’s old videos interviewing workers benefiting from their services:

I contacted Saeed once the Forbes feature was published to tell him how he was a hero to me. He told me about the horrific environment he and his team operate in. He had lost many friends under the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Sana’a and yet he refused to give in to despair.

Saeed explained to me how Ana Mehani had to shift its focus and meet the war-related jobs demands; for example, whenever some people’s homes were partially damaged by the shelling, airstrikes and other war-related violence, or whenever some displaced people needed transportation and delivery for their belongings - his team stepped in and linked them with vetted community-based workers. Schools, houses and organizations buildings impacted by the air-strikes all found his services to be a necessity.

With about 10 members, Ana Mehani team aims to find job opportunities midst of the raging war in Yemen.

I wanted to write about Saeed from my own perspective, other than Forbes’ one, so I pitched to my editors. I had an initial green light from my editor at Al Jazeera English. So I wrote the piece. I sent it. My editor kept me waiting for about a month with no feedback. Then, I received a reply of an apology about not publishing the piece. The reply also included a note of how they prefer stories only from “the ground.”

I swallowed my frustration. And I tried to vent and tweet about it:

Months passed by. Saleh was killed on Monday and the capital, Sana’a continues to be engulfed in flames. The fierce fighting between Houthi forces and pro-Saleh forces is destroying all aspect of life in Sana’a. After calling my mother, relatives and friends in Sana’a to check on them, I was thinking last night of Saeed. So I called.

Saeed greeted me with a tired voice.

“We are hanging on. We are working from home now as our office is right at where the clashes happen and I assume it became destroyed,” tells me Saeed, “no doubt, the current situation is not a reasonable working environment, although there are still high demands for jobs and services.”

Saeed voice becomes more tired when he tells me how he lost many international opportunities, in attending conferences and networks abroad. The blockade imposed on entry points to Yemen has crushed his dreams of enhancing his network and skills. “It kills my soul not being able to realize my dreams,” says Saeed.

We pose for seconds as if we mourn. In a helpless attempt to fill the silence, I ask Saeed, “which period was more difficult to deal with, business-wise? During the Saleh/Houthi vs. Hadi/Saudi fronts or during today’s events?”

“My team and I have a strong will to cope with whatever happens. We can see that there are increasing demands for our work, as the war rages on. However, today, the skyrocketing fuel prices are killing us and the Yemeni money exchange rate to dollars has jumped to 442 YR. This is leading us to … I don’t even have a word for it.”

“Are you still hopeful about the future,” I ask Saeed. “I have to be hopeful because I am alive - and I can’t wait for things to stabilize a little bit so we could scale up our work,” he replies.

*This piece was originally published on the Huffingtonpost on the 8th of Dec. 2017.