Yemen children bear adult responsibilities as tens of thousands lose parents to war
ADEN // At just 11 years old, Saeed Al Nowi has borne the responsibility of supporting his mother and three younger siblings since his father was killed by a sniper in March last year.
“My father was killed and we did not have a breadwinner, so I decided to sell ice cream to passers-by in Jamal Street”, in Taez city, said Saeed. “It is better to work than to beg.”
Saeed is one of more than 10,000 children, according to activists in Taez, to have lost one or both parents to the fighting between Yemen’s Houthi rebels and pro-government forces in a bitter battle for control of the city that has raged for more than two years.
More than 50,000 children have been orphaned since March 2015, when the uprising by the Iran-backed rebels escalated into a full-scale civil war, according to the latest available data compiled by the state-run Orphan Development Foundation and released in a report last year.
Even before the war, there were more than one million orphans in Yemen. But the Public Orphans Foundation, a government body assisting orphans, has since closed its offices in many provinces, especially those controlled by the rebels, like Taez. The economic hardship brought about by the war has affected charitable organisations and private philanthropy. With less help available to them, many orphans have been forced to either work or beg on the streets.
Children of war
“Some charitable associations and people provide us with food, but that is not enough for us,” said Saeed. “We need other things beside food.” At his mother’s suggestion, Saeed began buying ice cream from one of the city’s central fridges – a cold storage facility for those who do not have electricity in their home – and selling it by the roadside.
Saeed makes about 800 yemeni rials a day on average, selling ice cream from 7am to 6pm or later. He would rather be at school but no longer has the time to continue his education. “If someone can help us, I will immediately return to school,” he said.
Most of Saeed’s extended family are too poor to offer help, said a relative who is also unemployed and asked not to be named.
“Saeed is a brave boy and he did not hesitate to work to help his family,” he said. “This is not his fault, it is the war that forced Saeed and many children to stop study and work. I hope that organisations and the government can help orphans and provide them with enough food.”
Saeed is luckier than Aref Al Mohaya, 8, whose father was killed next to him in April last year when their house in Al Moshiki, east of Taez city, was hit by shelling. Aref was so deeply traumatised that he lost the power of speech and even now he can only speak with difficulty.
Aref is far from unique. Many other children are psychologically damaged by the loss of one or both parents in horrific circumstances. They suffer nightmares and flashbacks and need therapy, says Roqaya Al Higami, a social worker dealing with children’s issues in Taez. There are no official figures on the number of orphans in Taez but she estimates there are now 10,000.
Last year, the Orphan Development Foundation said orphans were facing a humanitarian crisis not seen in Yemen for many years. Dozens of orphans have lost their lives because of the war. Hundreds more have been left permanently disabled. Yet more now face death from lack of food. medicine and basic care.
“Thousands of orphans are either homeless or besieged or displaced. In addition, hundreds are at risk from dangerous epidemic and deadly diseases because of the absence of family and social care. Tens of thousands of orphans are also deprived of education,” said the Foundation.
The war – and the consequent humanitarian disaster – has affected half a million orphans throughout Yemen. The Foundation says they have slipped down the list of priorities for relief organisations. Cuts in their budget mean the Foundation is no loner able to meet its commitment to the 20,000 orphans it cares for. Other similar organisations have also had to curtail their work because of reduced funding.
Updated: April 6, 2017 04:00 AM