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How we can turn the tide

Yemen, September 25, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    This family in Yemen's Mawza District received vouchers to buy food as part of our emergency response to Yemen's humanitarian crisis. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Some say Yemen is on the edge of abyss.

Escalating fighting in the south between the government and radical Islamic groups has forced thousands of innocent Yemenis to flee their homes and livelihoods. Without basic supplies and means to support themselves, families are struggling to find enough to eat and drink. This humanitarian crisis is compounded by deepening insecurity across the nation — suicide bombings, kidnappings, and a general breakdown in the rule of law.

But there is a tremendous opportunity in Yemen — especially if we can harness the potential of the youth.

That's why Mercy Corps has prioritized the needs of young people in our work since we arrived in 2010. Young people make up over 45% of the population here. We'll soon reach a tipping point when these citizens will contribute to a continued breakdown in the rule of law, or invest themselves in building a positive future. We're working hard with our local partners to foster as many young leaders as we can through job training and community activities. This is at the heart of our Engaging Youth for a Stable Yemen (EYSY) program.

Meeting Yemen's evolving needs

A lot has changed in Yemen since Mercy Corps began working here in 2010. At that time, we sensed an opportunity to access Yemen like never before and help the country begin building toward its full potential. We began with a team of nine working with the youth here.

Since then, we have seen Yemenis rise up to demand change during the Arab Awakening and watched the end of more than 30 years of President Saleh's autocratic and often oppressive rule. There is new hope for the future of Yemen. But there are also the inevitable growing pains of transition, which has triggered not only acute crises, but also revealed chronic problems whose symptoms can no longer be ignored — and will not be quick to remedy.

In response, our team has grown to more than 65 members, working on ten different programs in three regions. The key strength of Mercy Corps here in Yemen is our national staff. Their connections give us a direct line to the people, guiding our work and increasing our acceptance in communities. Through community gatherings and meetings with local officials, we are able to identify and keep up with changing needs on the ground — imperative for us to decide how, where and, most of all, when to respond.

This process is ongoing, but thus far has focused on our work on three main priorities: meeting urgent needs like food and water; rehabilitating basic services like urban water systems and schools (projects that also provide employment); and engaging youth in positive activities.

Time to turn the tide

Now, more than ever, is the time to turn the tide in Yemen. The humanitarian crisis is demanding international attention, but we also need to sustain a level of support for Yemen that strengthens education, health care, job opportunities, and security.

This week, an international group called Friends of Yemen — which includes key officials from the U.S., U.K., EU, Saudi Arabia and other neighboring Gulf states — will meet in New York to discuss these very issues.

Our plan is to have large labor-intensive community projects throughout the country in order to help families rebuild the foundation, both literally and figuratively, underneath their own feet. It's essential that we support resilience at the household and community levels, to ensure that people are able to cope on their own in the long term.

Together, we can be part of the change in Yemen, transforming this country from being considered a failed state by many to a great nation exemplifying talent, determination and progress in the Arab world.