World Humanitarian Day 2020: Celebrating Yemen's Local Heroes in the Midst of Crisis

World Humanitarian Day 2020: Celebrating Yemen's Local Heroes in the Midst of Crisis

This World Humanitarian Day, Oxfam pays tribute to all humanitarians, like Heba, Asem and Abeer – three extraordinary people, who are working to ensure that their community and their country can one day thrive.

By Ahmed Al Fadeel, Omar Algunaid, and Hannah Cooper

For people in Yemen, like people across the globe, 2020 has been a year like no other. Over five years into a conflict that has killed thousands and uprooted millions from their homes, the COVID-19 pandemic has added yet another layer to the country’s ongoing crisis. Health services – already operating at half their pre-war capacity – have been overwhelmed, and people’s fear of COVID-19 may be preventing them for seeking healthcare, potentially masking a deadly cholera outbreak. On top of this, the economy is collapsing; remittances have fallen dramatically due to recession and job losses in other parts of the world. Meanwhile, over halfway through the year, less than a quarter of the money needed for the humanitarian response has so far been given.

Yet, in the midst of these layers of crisis are the many extraordinary Yemenis who are standing with their communities to help in any way they can. Wherever any crisis hits, local people and communities are on the frontlines of the response, and Yemen is no exception.

Despite the impact that COVID-19 has had on all of their lives – from Asem, who has had to put his medical degree on hold, to Heba, who worries every day that her nine-month-old baby will fall sick with the virus – they continue to help people worse off than themselves. This World Humanitarian Day, Oxfam pays tribute to all humanitarians who, like them, are working to ensure that their country can one day thrive.

Heba, Oxfam’s PHP Officer in Aden, gets ready to conduct a community dialogue meeting to determine the main challenges and problems the community is facing. Photo: Omar Algunaid/Oxfam

Heba: “We are humanitarians… if we don’t stay to help people, who will?”

Heba works as a Public Health Promotion Officer for Oxfam in her hometown of Aden, southern Yemen. Her job – which involves raising awareness around the importance of good hygiene, and training community health volunteers to deliver hygiene awareness sessions – has put her on the frontlines of the country’s COVID-19 response. Throughout the four years that Heba has worked with Oxfam in Yemen, she has seen the impact of diseases such as cholera, dengue and polio; but the COVID-19 response has been a challenge unlike any other:

“It’s been difficult – we try to avoid meeting with our colleagues, and we’ve been really careful about going out to speak with the community. So much of our work is normally done face-to-face, but we’ve had to find other ways of making sure that communities are aware of what they can do to prevent the spread of COVID-19 [such as phoning people up or visiting individuals so that we don’t gather in large groups]. As a mother and wife, I was also concerned for the health of my family and my nine-month-old baby. This is a disease that could affect anyone.”

Despite her worries, however, Heba told us that she believes the work she does to be more important than ever:

“I am proud to be part of Oxfam and have the opportunity to contribute to supporting people in my country. We are humanitarians. We are needed more than ever in times like these; if we don’t stay to help and support people, who will?”

Asem, conducting a hygiene awareness session about COVID-19 prevention methods. Photo: Omar Algunaid/Oxfam

Asem: “COVID-19 turned our lives upside down”

Asem is a Community Health Volunteer (CHV) with Oxfam in a village in Al-Dhale, southern Yemen, where his family lives. He joined Oxfam’s growing team of CHVs in May this year, going door-to-door and holding group sessions to raise awareness within his community around good hygiene practice, so that people can protect themselves from disease.

Asem, a first-year medical student in Morocco – where he had received a scholarship to study – had come home to visit his family when the pandemic struck. Travel restrictions meant that he couldn’t return to university, so he decided to volunteer with Oxfam:

“COVID-19 turned our lives upside down. I was worried and frightened in the beginning – I felt so helpless.  I started volunteering with Oxfam to raise people’s awareness about COVID-19, and how to protect themselves. We make sure that the awareness sessions respect physical distancing, of course – over time, good hygiene practice has become part of our routine.”

According to Asem, one of the biggest challenges in Yemen is asking people to stay inside, where possible, to avoid spreading COVID-19. In a country where working from home is not a realistic option for most, people need to go out to work to be able to afford food for their families.

“I chose to volunteer with Oxfam because I wanted to help people in my village to protect themselves from diseases. Despite the risks and challenges, I think it’s important that people are raising awareness – and as a young person I feel like it’s my responsibility to protect others.”

Abeer, in the IDP camp delivering key hygiene awareness messages on Covid-19 and ways to avoid it. Photo: Ahmed Al Fadeel/Oxfam

Abeer: “It’s a really difficult feeling when you see so many people in need and you know that the help available just isn’t enough.”

Abeer, originally from the Yemeni capital Sana’a, works as a Public Health Officer in Hajjah. This area in northern Yemen has been hard hit by conflict and hosts a large population of displaced people, the majority of whom are women and children. They live in crowded camps where social distancing is often impossible, and access to clean water and hygiene products is inadequate.

“When I was a child I loved helping others, so I studied hard to become a social worker and make sure I could work with people who need help. Oxfam gave me the chance to enter the humanitarian world – something I had dreamed of doing.”

She told us how the arrival of COVID-19 has added to the daily challenges of humanitarian workers in Yemen:

“There were already thousands of families living in terrible conditions in the camps for displaced people in Hajjah. With the arrival of coronavirus, the situation became even worse. It’s a really difficult feeling when you see so many people in need of assistance and you know that the help available just isn’t enough. And, with the drop in funding, instead of increasing to match the rising need, we have had to cut some of our projects. That’s been the most difficult for me throughout this pandemic. It’s a terrible feeling.”

Yet, despite the challenges, Abeer continues to see the difference that her work makes for those who have already lost so much:

“My job gives me the opportunity to make a tangible change to my country. The most rewarding part of it is seeing the smiles on the faces of the people we help – we’re saving lives through providing people with food, shelter, clean water, and soap. Over the past five years, we’ve worked to help people whose homes have been totally destroyed by war.”

Since the confirmation of cases of COVID-19 in Yemen in April, Oxfam has refocused its work to respond to the pandemic. We are working on rehabilitating water supplies, distributing hygiene kits for the most vulnerable households, and trucking in clean water to camps for people who have had to flee their homes. We have also given cash for food to families affected by flooding. Across Yemen, we’re training community health volunteers to spread the word about COVID-19 and the importance of hygiene and handwashing.

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