Called akhdam, “the servants,” by their fellow countrymen — and muhamashyn, “the marginalised,” by organizations working to help them — Yemen’s outcasts stand outside of the nation’s already tumultuous social, economic and political life. Their only crime is to have a darker complexion than the average — which, in a society defined along tribal and ethnic lines, is crime enough to merit their isolation.
So they live in squalor. And in Yemen, which is ranked 133 out of 169 countries in the global Human Development Report 2010, that is a brutal life indeed. Although the muhamashyn do not hail from any one specific tribal group, they are segregated together into large slums where huge extended families have been marked for unwarranted punishment and exclusion.
The size of these slums vary from a couple hundred residents to well over 10,000. Unsurprisingly, nobody knows for certain how many muhamashyn there are, since the last census done by an international NGO was four years ago, and the last government-led census is even older. Where the average family includes nine people, and the population growth is 3%, one of the highest in the world, such old data is simply unreliable.
To make meager ends meet, the muhamashyn take the jobs that other Yemenis do not want — mostly street sweepers and garbage collectors. Such menial labor earns just over $100 USD a month, working 7 days a week, even during the main Islamic holidays. It is not uncommon for parents to accept the jobs, but send their children as young as 9 to do the work. With no education, illiteracy is passed down through the generations, and the cycle of scraping by on unskilled labor continues.
Conflict doesn’t ignore the forgotten
If times were hard before, they have only gotten worse. Part of the Arab Awakening in 2011, protests that were initially based on social and economic grievances (Yemen is considering one of the poorest countries in the region) quickly began demanding the removal of then-President Salah. His refusal to step down reignited decades-old animosities and fragmented the country along loose tribal lines.
Taiz, the third largest city in Yemen, was one of the focal points of the anti-government uprising. Demonstrations quickly escalated until parts of the city were under militia control in June 2011, and the next month government forces were using artillery to bombard Taiz. Salah finally agreed to relinquish power last November, and his deputy, Abdu-Rabbo al-Hadi became the President following a one-candidate election on February 21, 2012.
While the conflicts flared, trade was severely disrupted; in a country entirely dependent on imports, that has resulted in prices so inflated that basic commodities like even water are out of reach for many working families, let alone the muhamashyn. Furthermore, the deterioration of the security situation and increase in kidnapping has led to the exit of many international NGOs who were working in the slums. No longer using hostages to negotiate, bodies were being found in ditches.
Stepping in during crisis
The French NGO, DIA, had been operating in Taiz for 12 years before leaving. They’d invested considerable time and resources into a range of programs for the muhamashyn, from building basic concrete houses, to sanitation and personal hygiene awareness campaigns. A community leader from the Zaid al-Mosheki slum of Taiz city fondly remembers DIA’s "cleanest house" competition, which had inspired many to act and improve their lot.
The concrete houses will be weathered and worn in time, but such change in attitude towards hygiene will be passed down for generations. This is a clear example of the creative programing that Mercy Corps and other NGOs must strive for in Yemen.
Mercy Corps began work in Yemen in 2010 to respond to the growing humanitarian crisis, and has maintained this focus, gradually expanding the scope of our work. We are working with youth to engage them in their communities, providing safe spaces and activities for children, supporting water and sanitation rehabilitation, and helping rural families access food and nutritional support.
Focus on water and hygiene in slums
Just this past March, as the daily chorus of gunfire and shelling began to decrease, Mercy Corps established its third Yemeni office in Taiz. In addition to working on food security in rural areas, the team’s main focus is on providing water and improved sanitation for the muhamashyn. We are recruiting the local unemployed workforce to build and repair the slum areas’ sewage network, which has an additional benefit of injecting funds into the community, and are launching public hygiene awareness campaigns and meetings.
With these interventions, Mercy Corps’ Taiz team hopes to both help the muhamashyn weather the difficult economic crisis during the worst of the summer months, as well as leave a positive long-term impact on the general health of Yemen’s most deprived communities.
The time to make a lasting difference in Yemen is upon the international community. The Friends of Yemen meeting in May brought together countries to discuss the political, social and economic needs of Yemen, and donors pledged $4 billion in aid. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many Yemenis to harness the world’s resources. Our challenge will be to ensure that we do not just meet humanitarian needs, but also focus on sustainable development as well; that we do not merely provide services along a charity model, but work with our Yemeni partners to empower communities to rebuild themselves.