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Beyond protests, a country working to thrive

Yemen, September 16, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Victoria Stanski/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps recently expanded programs in Yemen to meet critical humanitarian needs, including food, clean water and learning spaces for kids. Photo: Victoria Stanski/Mercy Corps

Yemen does not have a movie theater and only 11% of the population has access to the Internet. Nonetheless, “Innocence of Muslims,” the now notorious film that mocks Prophet Muhammad, generated violent protests in the capital of Sana’a this week.

Like many people around the world, I watched the events unfold on television. Al Jazeera, CNN and BBC. While it was quiet in my neighborhood, just a 20-minute drive away, people were storming, burning and looting the U.S. Embassy on Friday. Protests and American flag burnings had been erupting all week in Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, and of course, Libya, where U.S. Ambassador Stevens and three others were tragically killed on Tuesday.

The contrast between my immediate reality and what was happening on the other side of Sana’a was striking. We were all instructed to "hibernate" for the weekend and restrict unnecessary movement, so I spent most of it keeping up with news reports and communicating with family and friends reaching out to check on me.

On Saturday, back at the office, our Yemeni staff members were very disappointed and dismayed by the situation. One person said, "These people are bad and disgraceful. They don't represent Yemen. They are taking advantage of the situation for their own benefit."

The film that set this off is small-budget, distasteful and offensive to many Muslims. The response it generated is equally as unproductive, especially the violence. But if there is one lesson to learn from this escalating situation, it’s that the thoughts and actions of a small group are not representative of the whole. In this case, the filmmakers do not speak for all Americans, while those who attacked the U.S. Embassies do not represent the many people we work with in the Middle East.

On a daily basis, life in Yemen feels normal. Get up in the morning, go to work, stay busy busy busy, and come home to make dinner. Like any person, we find comfort in our routine. There is real risk — we cannot stay too predictable because that makes it easier for kidnappers to track you, for example — but we focus on the work ahead.

Designing programs that help get food and clean water to the most vulnerable families. Creating safe places for kids to learn and play at school. Working with local partners to raise awareness with events like Global Hand Washing Day. Empowering young leaders to better their communities one service project at a time. Despite the risk, this is what feels normal and right.

In the wake of these protests in Yemen and throughout the region, some may wonder what the United States’ role should be in helping a politically evolving Middle East. I believe this is a time when we should be working even harder to listen, understand and build better and stronger relationships with each other. If there is anything the world needs right now, it is more communication to see more of our common interests.

We are guests here to help local counterparts work for their own better future. Most Yemenis cannot believe their country faces this violence; in a welcoming culture that values hospitality and generosity, it is disgraceful to treat guests like this. This is the reality I see everyday. Yemen certainly has more difficult days ahead. But we stand behind its people as they work to improve their country through peaceful means.