Syrians in Yemen: ‘Back to square one’

Syrian refugees in war-torn Yemen have been catapulted into the same type of conflict they were fleeing.

Humanitarian situation in Yemen
Coalition air strikes have continued to pound the capital, and casualties have continued to mount [EPA]

Sanaa, Yemen – Hussar Huwais moved swiftly between cars, selling wreaths of white jasmine. As the traffic lights turned green at this intersection in the Hadda neighbourhood of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, Huwais scurried back towards the pavement.

These few crucial minutes at the crossing presented a chance to earn a few dollars to sustain his family for another day. After selling his small plot of land in Hama, Syria, two years ago, Huwais fled to Yemen. Leaving behind their war-torn country, Huwais and his family said Sanaa initially felt like a safe haven.

“Enough of Arabs killing each other. Young people who never used weapons are fighting and dying innocently. They are paying a bigger price for the war,” said Huwais, who is in his early 40s.

This was before an Arab coalition launched an air campaign in Yemen in March, in an effort to halt the advances of the country’s Houthi rebels, who had stormed the capital and forced President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi out of office.

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Two months later, Huwais and other Syrian refugees in Yemen have been catapulted into the same type of conflict they were fleeing, with many displaced yet again from their homes.

“We escaped worse in Syria,” Huwais noted.

The protracted Syrian conflict has brought about 100,000 Syrian refugees to Yemen, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), citing Yemeni interior ministry figures released earlier this year.

I believe Syrians in Yemen relate to the current conflict and its impact on their living conditions. They have lived the same scenario back in Syria. Many claim to have adapted to this situation and nothing surprises them any longer.

Ghada Hassan, UN spokesperson for humanitarian affairs

Syrians arriving in Yemen are granted a three-month renewable visit visa, but many do not officially register with the United Nations for fear of being reported to Syrian authorities, said Ghada Hassan, a spokesperson for UNOCHA.

With Yemen’s main cities – Sanaa, Aden, and Taiz – reduced to ghost towns, Hassan said Syrians, along with other Yemenis, have encountered challenges similar to those facing residents back in Syria: a lack of employment, security, fuel, water, food, and medical services.

“I believe Syrians in Yemen relate to the current conflict and its impact on their living conditions. They have lived the same scenario back in Syria. Many claim to have adapted to this situation and nothing surprises them any longer,” Hassan said.

For those trying to escape the situation in Yemen, Hassan added, “none of the evacuation efforts are including Syrian nationals”.

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Mohammed Mahmood, a 31-year-old restaurateur, says he is keen to relocate to Turkey or Egypt. 

“During the past few weeks, the fighting has worsened,” Mahmood told Al Jazeera from his empty al-Asbahi restaurant in Hadda. “I lost money in Homs after I shut down; now I will lose money again. The last month has been difficult for my business. People don’t hang out as much; many are unemployed. People have no income to eat outside.” 

The situation is also dire for students, many of whom have had their studies interrupted.

After finishing high school, Mohammed Wasim, 21, says he waited two years before he could enrol in medical school in December 2014. But four months after he arrived at Yemen’s University of Science and Technology, schools and universities shut down due to the unremitting air strikes in the capital.  

“Studying gave me a new sense of purpose. I thought I was making some progress, but with the bombing, now I will lose another year,” Wasim told Al Jazeera. Regardless of how the situation unfolds, Wasim plans to relocate to Turkey to continue studying.

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Meanwhile, Hassan noted, despite the obstacles, hundreds of Syrians have been leaving Yemen every day.

“Those living in southern Yemen’s coastal cities – mainly Aden and Hodeida – had the option to travel by sea to Djibouti. Others decided to move to Yemen’s safer villages and towns. Many living in the north travel by bus to cross the Saudi borders,” she said. 

According to the UN office and Syrians fleeing Yemen, Saudi officials have offered Syrians the option to travel through the Jizan port, north of the border with Yemen. Those keen to take this route are asked to provide a letter of guarantee from a Saudi resident or a foreign resident with a valid Saudi visa that they would stay in the country no longer than 15 days.

Abdulrahman Abbara, studying at the Lebanese International University in Sanaa, used this route to flee the air strikes. He took a bus to Riyadh, where his brother Muhanned stood as his guarantor. “Fifteen days are not enough,” he said. Before his visa expired, Abbara travelled to Istanbul to figure out a long-term plan.

Taleb Hammoud, who works at the Syrian embassy in Yemen after relocating from Damascus, said he had been in the process of enrolling for part-time studies at the Lebanese International University in Sanaa when the air strikes began. The unfolding conflict derailed his plans, he added.

“We waited for a week, two weeks – with every passing day it got worse,” Hammoud told Al Jazeera. “Suddenly, my life was back to square one: no friends, work or studies.”

Mohammed al-Qalisi contributed to this report

Source: Al Jazeera


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