Since Mercy Corps began working in Yemen in October 2010, we have kept our main office in the capital city of Sana’a. I see more and more women and young girls begging for food on the streets. Last month, nearly 100 soldiers were killed here by a suicide bomb.
The 2011 uprising brought more attention to the precarious situation in Yemen, but the country has been in crisis for decades. It is the poorest Arab nation in the world, and has long been a victim of systemic neglect by not only its own rulers, but also by the international community.
Poor economic growth over many years, government corruption and bad policies, rising food prices in the import-dependent country, as well as limited access to water and energy have all directly contributed to the hunger, desperation and violence that currently plague Yemen.
But this is a beautiful country that deserves its chance.
Surrounded by bare tawny mountains that rise against the hard blue sky, Sana’a’s air is thin and dusty. It is one of the oldest inhabited places in the world, and you can still see some of the ancient artisan shops that formed a hub of international trade a millennia ago.
At our second office in Aden, the old port city to the south, you are never too far from the ocean — and if you can’t see it, you can smell it. But throughout Aden, families who have been displaced by violence are living in squalor, camping out in schools that were forced to close. Chairs and desks are piled in corners of classrooms, and in some cases, broken down for firewood to cook food. The bathrooms are overflowing, and playgrounds are silent. In many of the schools the conditions are so dire that the population are living in their own excrement. How can one accept something like this in the 21st Century?
In Taiz, the mountainous city where we have our third office, the infrastructure is in shambles, many buildings with gaping holes from the fighting that took place throughout the city in 2011. As relative peace has settled here, people are ready to rebuild, but are constantly reminded of the volatile past.
In the past year, Mercy Corps has launched a number of new programs to address multiple urgent needs in Yemen. We are distributing vouchers to help vulnerable families access food and water in Taiz; we are providing safe spaces and educational activities to comfort kids in Sana’a; and we’re engaging youth as community leaders from Aden to Taiz.
The history of Yemen is deep and rich; now, the the future is in the hands of youth. More than half the population of Yemen is under the age of 27. Without jobs, sports, higher education, and civic leadership to occupy them, they’re vulnerable to recruitment into radical groups and violent activities.
The security situation here is tremulous at best. While we work to address urgent needs, we’re also guiding young people toward more positive activities that can build a safer foundation for all. Youth are not only the future of Yemen, they are also the present. We need to be patient, stay calm, and remain a friend of Yemen for the long haul.