'Like a firefighter'

A Yemeni family’s daily financial struggles

An illustration of a Yemeni family
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? A series from the front line of the cost-of-living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Names: Abdulla Ali and Arwa Ahmed (a pseudonym to protect her privacy)

Ages: 45 and 42

Occupations: Abdulla works as a day labourer and his wife Arwa is a part-time domestic worker

Live with: Their five children - sons Qasem (12), Asem (10), Basem (4), Hazim (2) and daughter Basima (6)

Live in: A first-floor, two-room apartment in Al-Thawra district on the outskirts of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital.

December household income: 95,000 ($170.3)* Yemeni riyals. According to the Yemen-based Studies and Economic Media Center, a family of five in Sanaa needs a minimum of $106.2 per month for food.

Total expenses for the month: 93,000 Yemeni riyals ($166.7)

A photo of two kids playing football in the street, outside of a building with a red car in front of it.
Two boys play football on a street in Sanaa, Yemen [File: Nusaibah Almuaalemi/Reuters]
Two boys play football on a street in Sanaa, Yemen [File: Nusaibah Almuaalemi/Reuters]

It is 12:30pm and Arwa is preparing lunch for her five children and husband. In the family’s tiny kitchen, she cooks rice and a dish of potatoes, tomato and onion. To one side, a “tanoor”, an oven for baking bread, and a gas cylinder sit on the tiled floor. Plastic and steel plates are stacked on a wooden table.

“The gas cylinder is about to finish, and it will suffice for two or three more days,” Arwa says as she cooks over a gas stove, her children occasionally checking to see whether the food is ready.

Her husband Abdulla, a day labourer who usually works on construction sites, will be home soon with bread and yoghurt bought from the market and paid for with the day’s earnings.

At 1:15pm, Abdulla, wearing a brown robe and a black coat, returns home. Lunch is ready and the children jump up to wash their hands in the kitchen. Qasem, the eldest child, places a blue cloth on the ground in the centre of the room where the family eat and the siblings do their homework.

Arwa lays out the two dishes – rice and cooked vegetables – while Abdulla takes out a red plastic bag full of “kidem”, a thick, round bread, and two tubs of yoghurt. The family sit in a circle to enjoy their lunch. After they’ve eaten, Abdulla asks his children how school was that day and if they have any homework. He then pulls out a 250 Yemeni riyal ($0.50) note, handing it to Qasem to buy five pieces of chocolate for the children.

For Abdulla, who earns a daily wage, it is a constant struggle to feed his children in a country that has been torn apart by eight years of war and political instability.

Abdulla is dependent on the availability of work. Sometimes, he works non-stop for weeks and then, may have nothing for a week or more. When he has work he is able to cover daily expenses like vegetables, yoghurt, cans of beans and drinking water. He finds work through contractors who know him, or, if he sees a new construction site he will inquire about possible work. He often earns approximately 7,000 Yemeni riyals ($12.50)* a day.

"The money I earn instantly goes to the [grocery] shopping or for rent. The day on which I stay jobless, I experience financial hardship," says Abdulla as he leans against the grey wall.

An illustration of a graph indicating inflation with the left bar slightly longer than the right bar.
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

With Yemen’s ailing economy and the continuing conflict, putting food on the table is a daunting task for millions of families.

The United Nations has estimated that the number of Yemenis needing humanitarian assistance in 2022 reached 23.4 million. In a country of about 31 million people, 19 million are food insecure.

Breadwinners, including Abdulla, have borne the brunt of the war-damaged economy, including price rises and national currency depreciation. "I am like a firefighter. I need to pay the rent, purchase cooking gas, wheat, oil, and more and more. This responsibility is more challenging during wartime," Abdulla says as he touches his cheeks.

The prices of commodities, in particular that of wheat with imports affected by the Russia-Ukraine war, went up in 2022, adding to the ordeal of low-income families. In 2021, a 50kg (110-pound) sack of flour cost 15,000 Yemeni riyals ($27). Today, it costs 17,500 Yemeni riyals ($31). Although basic commodities like flour, cooking oil, rice and sugar are not scarce on the market, eight years of conflict and inflation have weakened purchasing power in the country.

Abdulla considers price increases to be as painful as the war. “If we are not affected by air strikes or shelling during war, the rise of food prices hits everyone everywhere, adding to the bitterness of our hardship,” he says.

Even so, no matter how hard life gets, he says he remains a “hopeful person”.

During the past two years, with the family’s expenses growing due to the increase in food prices and their children starting school, Arwa has occasionally picked up domestic work for families in the neighbourhood to help cover costs.

In December, Arwa worked for 15 days for a family who lives nearby. She preferred not to work too far from home so she could check in on her children during the day. When his siblings were at school, she brought two-year-old Hazim to work with her and left four-year-old Basem with relatives who have young children.

Arwa helped look after the family’s children and did chores, such as the laundry and preparing food.

She received 20,000 Yemeni riyals ($36) for 15 days of work. She was grateful for the income.

When Arwa finds employment, she does not request a specific wage. "I do not argue about money. And some families give me more than I expect," she explains as she caresses her two-year-old son’s hair.

Still, the couple has struggled tirelessly, and cannot always cover their basic needs. Their apartment has no electricity, and for the past five years, they have relied on a solar panel connected to a battery to power their three lights at night.

The de facto Houthi government does not provide power in the neighbourhood. A private company does, charging about 400 Yemeni riyals ($0.70) per kilowatt. "The electricity tariff is high, and we cannot afford it. We have been using a solar panel as an alternative,” explains Arwa, who is dressed in a loose abaya.

Winter brings darkness to the family. With less sun, “the battery connected to the solar panel is not adequately charged. The light of lamps is dim in the evening and often goes off. Then, we use a flashlight when we need light."

In December, Arwa and Abdulla tracked the details of their monthly expenses. Here are the expenses that tested their family’s finances the most.

The family's expenses over one month

A photo of a market with barrels of raisins and people sitting in chairs behind the barrels.
Vendors wait for customers at a Sanaa market [File: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]
Vendors wait for customers at a Sanaa market [File: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

School expenses

In Sanaa, the second semester of the school year began on December 3. The couple has three children at school. Despite their ages, Qasem and Asem are both in second grade. Abdulla was supposed to enrol Qasem in school when he was seven years old, but at the time, he kept delaying as the family, like many others, struggled to cover their basic needs due to the conflict and economic crisis and were focused on their survival.

Basima is a first-grader and started school in 2022. With Basima at school - and more materials to buy - the family has minimised their food expenses throughout the year, including cutting down on buying fruit, which the children had liked to eat. They also used to buy chicken twice a week, but stopped. They rarely eat meat and haven’t since November.

A photo of children in a classroom writing something in a notebook.
Yemeni pupils attend a class in Sanaa in August 2022 [File: Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

In December, all three children needed new notebooks, textbooks, pens and pencils. Arwa saved 10,000 Yemeni riyals ($18) from her December income and her husband contributed another 10,000 Yemeni riyals to buy the requisite materials. The price of these items has gone up in the past year. For the same purchases for three children, it would have cost 5,000 Yemeni riyals ($9) less the previous year.

Every month, they also pay the school 1,200 Yemeni riyals ($2.2) per child. This money goes towards supporting teachers who, like other government staff in Houthi-controlled areas, have not received a regular salary since 2016.

Arwa believes that education is as essential as food. “Food nourishes their bodies, and schooling nourishes their minds,” she says.

At the same time, she admits that she does not think they can financially support their children to pursue a high school or university education.

"They should at least be able to read and write when they discontinue going to school," Arwa says.

Millions of students have dropped out of school in Yemen since the war began in 2015. The warring sides have recruited children, or families have sent them to work to support their parents and younger siblings. In December, UNICEF said nearly 4,000 children had been recruited into fighting since 2015. Arwa and Abdulla say they will try their best to keep their three children at school.

2021: 10,000 ($18) for school materials for two children**
2022: 20,000 Yemeni riyals ($36) for three children

Yemen CPI graphic
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]


Arwa's family lives in a rented house comprising two small rooms - two by three metres (6.5 by 10 feet) each -, a bathroom, and a kitchen. The family currently pays 25,000 Yemeni riyals ($45) in monthly rent. It is a considerable burden for Arwa and Abdulla who have irregular incomes.

"I always count the days and nights of the month and check the money that I have saved to pay the rent. When the landlord calls me asking for rent, my heart beats out of anxiety if the amount is not collected," says Abdulla with a sigh. Eight days before the end of December, Abdulla saved 18,000 Yemeni riyals ($32.30). When the month ended, the full amount was ready.

Although the income of the family has fluctuated, Arwa and Abdulla usually managed to make ends meet. But when they couldn’t cover their expenses and pay the rent, they borrowed cash from friends or relatives to pay the landlord. Otherwise, they can pay part of the rent, and the amount remaining can be paid later. Paying the rent is "backbreaking," Abdulla says. "It takes a considerable part of what we make."

The years-long conflict in Yemen has displaced millions of families from war-torn areas in several provinces such as Hodeidah, Taiz, Marib, and Saada. Sanaa has been a destination for countless internally displaced persons. While the city has faced air raids over the last years, it has been safe from ground fighting.

In 2021, the family paid 20,000 Yemeni riyals ($36) a month, but in 2022 the landlord, like others, decided to raise the rent to 25,000 Yemeni riyals ($45) due to rising living costs and inflation.

This has led to an exorbitant rise in the cost of rent in Sanaa. "In 2015, the rent of this residence would not exceed 15,000 Yemeni riyals ($27) per month. Today, the same amount is not enough to rent a good room in the capital city," Abdulla says.

2021: 20,000 Yemeni riyals a month ($36)**
2022: 25,000 Yemeni riyals a month ($45)

A photo of a man carrying two gas cylinders with people and a row of gas cylinders in the background.
A Yemeni man carries refilled gas cylinders [File: Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

Cooking gas

Besides his anxiety about the rent, Abdulla keeps worrying about two items: flour and cooking gas. In December, he bought 50kg (110 pounds) of flour and filled the gas cylinder twice. Such indispensable items form a heavy financial burden every month.

Filling the gas cylinder for the stove and oven has not always been affordable. When they couldn’t afford gas, Arwa occasionally burned firewood and cardboard placed between two cement blocks on the tiled floor that supported a stockpot to cook meals. "Last month [November], I sent two of my children to collect cardboard from streets and pieces of wood around unfinished buildings in our neighbourhood,” she sighs. “I managed to cook rice with potatoes and made tea for lunch. I also prepared dinner, using the same way." She says she was not happy about sending her children out to collect firewood, but that they have to adapt when they do not have cooking gas.

The last gas cylinder Abdulla refilled in December cost 9,000 Yemeni riyals ($16) on the black market. Though the de facto Houthi authorities sell cooking gas to citizens for 6,000 Yemeni riyals ($11) a cylinder, it is not always available and has also become more expensive last year due to shortages. If a family’s cylinder needed urgent refilling they could do that on the black market – so long as they had the cash.

2021: 4,500 Yemeni riyals ($8) for refilling one gas cylinder
2022: 6,000 Yemeni riyals ($11) or higher 

A photo of a market with sacks of flour all around the outside of a building.
Yemeni workers carry bags of flour outside a wholesale store in Sanaa in March 2022. The country relies on imported wheat flour with nearly 50 percent of its imports coming from Ukraine and Russia in 2021 [File: Mohammed Huwais/AFP]


Flour for making bread is the other essential expense which has gone up in the past year. "Every two weeks, I purchase 25kg [55 pounds] of wheat for making homemade bread. I need 50kg [110 pounds] a month," Abdulla says.

"We can ignore fruits, meat, chicken, and sweets. But we can't live without wheat and cooking gas. These items help us keep hunger away," explains Abdulla, sipping a cup of plain, black tea while his children sit cross-legged beside him.

Abdulla has allocated as much money as he can to groceries. "I feel happy seeing the cooking gas, wheat, cooking oil, sugar, and tea powder in the kitchen. This assures me that my children can have a kettle of tea and bread to eat when needed," Abdulla says.

2021: 15,000 Yemeni riyals ($27) for 50kg (110 pounds) of flour**
2022: 17,500 Yemeni riyals ($31)

A photo of a man holding a wheelbarrow and standing in rubble.
A labourer removes the rubble ahead of restoration works on a UNESCO-listed building in Sanaa's Old City [File: Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

Five quick questions for Abdulla and Arwa

1. What's the hardest financial decision you had to make this month? Buying no fruits on several days throughout the month. We often try to purchase one type of fruit like bananas, oranges, or watermelon. However, it is not always affordable. We skipped fruit for almost 17 days, and our kids felt unhappy about that. When they ask us about the fruits today, we say we will buy them tomorrow. When tomorrow comes, they ask the same question and get the same answer. - Abdulla

2. Which is the most worthwhile expense from the month? Buying textbooks, pens, and pencils for our three children. It is worthwhile because those items made them happy and prepared for the second school term. Seeing them go to school and do their homework gives me a sense of satisfaction and motivation. - Abdulla

3. When finances get tough, what advice do you have? Always spend your earnings wisely, which will keep you distant from financial troubles. When you happen to face a harsh financial plight, you may borrow if possible, but be clear about how and when you will give the money back. It is wrong if we borrow money and spend it on unnecessary things. - Abdulla

4. What's your biggest money worry? For those like us who do not own houses, rent is the number one worry. We can be patient if we do not have essential items such as wheat and rice. But the landlord cannot be patient with us if the rent is delayed repeatedly. When we pay rent on time, we feel it as a victory. - Arwa

5. What's the saving hack you are proud of? In October, we took our kids to the park and ate out [ordering rice with chicken and juice at a restaurant]. It is about 20km (12 miles) away from our neighbourhood. Without the savings we made, that would not have been possible. The kids love to go to the park, and we were proud of fulfilling what makes them glad. - Arwa

*Since 2015, Yemen has been divided between the Houthi rebels, who control much of the north, including the capital Sanaa, and the internationally-recognised government, which is based in Aden. That has led to differing exchange rates for the Yemeni riyal, with the official rate in Houthi-controlled areas being about 558 Yemeni riyals and in government areas about 1,200 Yemeni riyals to $1.

**All 2021 prices were provided by the family except for that of flour, which came from shopkeepers.

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera