In Yemen, a classroom called home

In Yemen, a classroom called home

School buildings at the Al Zubairi school in Sana’a being used by 34 displaced families from Sa’ada. These families fled because of the intense fighting in the city.

© UNICEF/UN08232/Madhok – School buildings at the Al Zubairi school in Sana’a being used by 34 displaced families.

By Rajat Madhok and Tahani Saeed

Families displaced by conflict in Yemen take shelter where they can find it, eat whatever they can and live in fear of the deadly violence that continues every day.

IBB, Yemen/ HONG KONG, 18 January 2016 – For 37-year-old Mariyam, survival is a daily challenge. The days pass slowly, but it’s the evenings when pain and panic grip her. Her 13 children look to her for food, but there is none to offer. Her husband manages to bring back some leftovers from restaurants, but even that is not enough to feed 13 growing children. The meal lasts less than a minute, as all the children quickly swallow whatever they can get their hands on. Mariyam and her husband can only watch their children in despair.

Mariyam fled with her children from Taiz, a city that has seen some of the bloodiest fighting since the escalation of conflict last March. She had no choice but to run with whatever personal belongings she could gather. After a few days, she found shelter in a classroom in Ibb, a city two hours away from Taiz. Seven months later, there is no respite in the conflict, nor any change in her displaced status. She and her children continue to share space in a classroom with four other families or 20 other women and children.

“I wish to go back but am so scared that my children will be injured in the fighting,” says the teary-eyed mother as she points to a corner in the room where their meagre belongings are stacked. “I would rather stay here in this little corner than head back to Taiz.”

© UNICEF Yemen/2015/Farid
Mariyam, mother of 13 children, lives with her family in a school building in Ibb, Yemen, after violence forced them to flee their home in Taiz.

Mariyam and 19 other families are crowded into classrooms in Sana’a Muhaidaly School, in the heart of Ibb city. Across the country, the conflict has displaced more than 2.5 million people. Many have taken refuge in schools such as this one. Mariyam has nowhere to go, and her children can’t lead a normal life anymore.

“We don’t have any money to shop at stores,” she says. “Thanks to UNICEF, we received these items.” She points at a hygiene kit distributed to her and thousands others like her. The hygiene box includes shampoo, soaps, jerry cans, a small tub for washing clothes, sanitary napkins and other essential items for daily living.

“We need so much more support. We need cleaner toilets, rations, and a proper space to live in,” she says.

Ever increasing needs

UNICEF has been providing emergency relief supplies in Taiz and other areas affected by conflict. “So far, we have provided displaced families with safe water, chlorine tablets, water tanks, temporary latrines, vaccinations for children, including against polio and measles, basic commodities like hygiene kits, medicines and fuel to run hospital facilities and for pumping city water networks,” says Khurram Javed, who is heading UNICEF’s response in Taiz and Ibb. “However, the needs in this crisis only seem to be ever increasing by the day.”

© UNICEF Yemen/2015/Farid
Wageeda and her two nephews stand outside a UNICEF tent in Ibb that serves as a temporary classroom. She fled with them from Taiz when fighting intensified and one of her brothers was killed.

In Al Qaidah, a town 20 km for Taiz, displaced families are taking refuge in any shelter they can find. We met a 21-year old-woman called Wageeda, who fled Taiz with her two nephews. “The fighters dropped a bomb close to our house, which caused injuries to one of my brothers. He recovered soon after,” Wageeda says, holding one of her nephews close to her. “The next week, another bomb exploded close to our house, and a neighbour’s body split into two pieces. My elder brother saw the body and went into shock. He never recovered from it and died soon after.”

Similar to Mariyam, Wageeda lives with 16 other persons in a classroom at a primary school in Al Qaidah. Her nephews study in a tent provided by UNICEF, which works as a makeshift classroom. She fears that an explosion will cause injury to her nieces. She prefers that they study indoors. But there is no space. All rooms have been taken over by displaced families.

When asked if she wants to go back to Taiz, Wageeda says, “My house was destroyed in the fighting, so there is nowhere to go as of now. The house can be reconstructed, but how can I get my brother back? He has gone forever.”