• Oxfam has been in Yemen for more than 30 years, working hard to improve water and sanitation services, as well as the livelihoods of people living in poverty. Since 2015, we’ve reached more than 3 million people with clean water, food vouchers, cash transfers and hygiene kits as part of our emergency response.

Crisis upon crisis: Families in Yemen forced into debt to pay for food and medicine

Almost six years of war has pushed Yemen to the brink. Thousands have been killed, millions displaced and the country's infrastructure has been devastated. 

With the economy shattered, food prices skyrocketing and huge levels of unemployment, it has emerged that almost 40 percent of families are using debt to buy food and medicines. 

New research by Oxfam has revealed that families say they can’t borrow the money they need for essentials unless shopkeepers know they have a monthly income. For many, this means the cash transfers they receive from humanitarian agencies. 

Shopkeepers estimate that the number of families using debt to buy food has risen by 62 percent since the conflict started, while pharmacists estimate an increase of 44 percent in debt being used to purchase medicines.

Hind Qassem* with her 10 children in their temporary tent. Photo: Ahmed Al-Fadeel/Oxfam

Hind Qassem*, 45, was pregnant with her tenth child when her husband was killed by an artillery shell, forcing her to flee with her children.  At first, they lived under a plastic sheet, relying on leftovers given by neighbouring families. Three of her sons suffer from sickle cell anaemia and need blood transfusions every month.

“Now, I receive YER 45,000 (around US$70) every month," she said. "Yes, it is not enough to cover all our needs but it helps a lot. I am now able to pay for my children’s treatment and buy some flour and vegetables for us to eat. Shops will now allow us to buy food on credit because we are receiving monthly assistance."

Many families who are struggling with debt say that they are living permanently in arrears - using their transfer to pay off what they owe and then run up more debt as they wait for their next aid payment. 

Last year, donors only provided half of the aid money needed for the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. With the 2021 UN humanitarian need budget for Yemen due imminently, Oxfam is urging the international community to be generous when pledging funds. 

Ibrahim Alwazir, who carried out the research for Oxfam, said: “To struggle this hard to be able to provide food and medicine for one's family is an avoidable hardship that millions have to overcome on a daily basis. We need peace so no more Yemenis are forced to flee their homes and live in poverty.

“Peace will allow people to rebuild their lives and businesses, but we need support to help communities to do that. This war has turned my country into the world’s largest humanitarian crisis and it’s only getting worse. We all just want to get back to normal life.”  

Some 24.3 million Yemenis, over 53 per cent of the population, currently need humanitarian assistance. This year, 16.2 million Yemenis will rely on food aid to survive, with 17.9 million lacking access to healthcare in a country where only half of health facilities are fully functional.

It is estimated that in parts of Yemen one in five children are severely malnourished and will grow up with life-long medical conditions if they do not get more food.

Oxfam, along with other agencies in Yemen, provides support for struggling families in the form of cash transfers which allows people to choose what they buy and helps stimulate local markets.

Grocery store owner Abdulkareem Salaeh said: "We are left with no choice [but to offer credit]. People are desperate, and we are struggling to keep the business going. While some are able to pay, others can't and that's a problem.

"We only agree to lend people with a reliable source of income, like employees, business owners, daily wage labourers or those receiving humanitarian aid, else it will be a loss that we can't afford. We are barely able to cover operational costs and the costs of goods we sell. It's unfortunate!"

Oxfam staff distribute hygiene kits in Alkoba camp, Taiz. Photo: Hitham Ahmed/Oxfam

Oxfam been on the ground in Yemen since 2015, helping more than 3 million people in nine governorates with clean water and sanitation, cash assistance and food vouchers. 

We’ve provided clean water and sanitation to more than one million people, including in hard-to-reach areas of the country, through providing water by truck, repairing water systems, delivering filters and jerry cans, as well as building latrines and organising cleaning campaigns.

To help combat Covid-19, we’re also supporting the healthcare system with hygiene equipment, hospital supplies and mobile services for rural areas. We’ve been able to provide the health authorities in Amran governorate, northern Yemen, with five mobile health centres, as well as oxygen cylinders, hospital beds, PPE and fuel to help with the running of generators.

*Name changed

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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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In Yemen, my child cries all night from hunger

Written by: Ibrahim Alwazir | Edited by: Lauren Heartnett

Since the war in Yemen escalated in 2015, millions of its people have been displaced – losing their livelihoods and leaving most or all of their belongings behind. Forced from their homes, they have had to flee, resettle and survive.

The small informal settlements, where many now live, lack basic services like clean water, safe sanitation, electricity, schools and more. Oxfam and other organisations, from the UN to small local NGOs, are doing all we can to help these families, but a massive gap in funding and ongoing challenges accessing vulnerable communities continues to put this response at risk.

Cases of COVID-19 were first confirmed in Yemen in early April. It has been spreading throughout the country since, but without sufficient testing, healthcare facilities or other infrastructure, it’s difficult to accurately estimate how many people have been affected.

Hunger has always been an urgent threat, with many areas of Yemen on the brink of famine for years. Cases of malnutrition, particularly among children, are all too commonplace. The price of food has increased and the basics are often difficult to find, putting food out of reach for most Yemenis.  In some cases, families have been forced to have their daughters married at a young age so they have one less mouth to feed, or in the hope that they will have a better chance in another’s care.

Hakeem stands near his tent in the settlement for displaced families, where he lives and also works with Oxfam to promote good health and sanitation, with a focus on how to stay healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Haafedh Almattabi / Oxfam

Oxfam’s Public Health Community Programme

Oxfam’s Public Health Community Volunteer Hakeem Asser is working in one of these small informal settlements in Al-Qaflah district in Amran governorate, where 45 families now live. He also was forced to leave his home and is now living in this community with his family, including his seven children. He is helping to raise awareness in his community about the threat of COVID-19 and educate people on how to protect their families. 

“I am a [paid] volunteer with Oxfam and this helps me provide for my family, help my community and learn,” said Hakeem. “You can’t imagine how desperate people are. I can see them during the night, worried, sad, and totally unready to face another day. I try to calm them down and tell them it will be alright. Even with the payments from Oxfam, I am struggling, too. The other day I couldn’t afford to buy milk for my child. He was malnourished two years ago and I took him to a hospital to receive medical care on credit. I couldn’t pay back until now and I can’t follow up on his condition because of that.”

Hakeem shared that families have lost almost all means of accessing food. Before COVID-19 hit, this was already a major challenge. Oxfam had previously been the sole organisation to provide food vouchers, cash, water and awareness campaigns in the area, but most of this work had to be cut due to a lack of funds and challenges accessing the area regularly due to the conflict and restrictions from authorities.

“Oxfam was providing us with food baskets first and then cash for food, and we were happy and able to provide food and other necessities for our families. But since Oxfam was forced to scale back its support, we have lost a helping hand and people are devastated.”

Now, with COVID-19 looming, even the ways families had adapted to find food to survive are no longer open to them.

“People used to go to markets to get food or find daily-wage work opportunities, beg in the streets or receive leftovers from nearby restaurants, but now they have lost that too.”

Families in this, and other areas, are very afraid to leave their communities to find food or seek medical care, for COVID-19 or any other ailments.

Hakeem conducting a session with the community on what causes Cholera, how to prevent it, identify symptoms and how it can be treated. Photo Credit: Haafedh Almattabi / Oxfam

I can’t eat while others starve

“People here are aware of the virus and how it has been killing many people around the world. They are terrified. They all think they could be infected, and they can’t afford to get sick or die. This means that they now only rely on the generosity of others who provide perhaps some bread.

“Our children are the most affected – they are starving! My child keeps crying all night. He needs milk and I can’t afford it. That breaks my heart. But when I have food, I share it with my neighbours, especially these days. We have bread and when we bake, I make sure I share it all. I can’t eat while others starve. This is what we do – we share what we have!

“All I can say is that we are doing our best and we are confident in God’s mercy. This doesn’t mean we don’t need help. We need it so bad and we need it now. The most urgent thing right now is food. We need water, hygiene kits, cash and awareness campaigns. People are losing hope and with COVID-19 spreading, I can only imagine it will get worse. No one wants that to happen. It’s not fair.”

Oxfam is rehabilitating the water supply to one of the main hospitals in the city of Aden, providing cash assistance to families affected by flooding in the south of the country, and training community health volunteers to provide information about coronavirus and the importance of hygiene and handwashing.

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It’s five years since war broke out in Yemen. I will never forget the terror in the eyes of my children.

Written by Manal, a humanitarian worker with Oxfam in Yemen.

When war first escalated in 2015, I was living happily with my family in Taiz city. It saddens me how the city I loved, the city that holds all my memories since I was a child turned into a ghost town full of death and fear overnight.

It all started with a blue spark that lit up the sky and invaded our houses and the rooms in which we silently hid. Then we heard the crack. That was the first missile to hit a building near us. After that, bombs fell everywhere; we thought we’d be next. We tried not to panic but panic was all we could feel.

Ruined houses destroyed by aerial bombardment in the city of Aden. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

The next day myself and my children went to say goodbye to a friend who was taking a trip abroad. We could hear tanks in the streets nearby and the roads were blocked. We got trapped in her house, separated from our families who kept calling to check if we were okay. I will never forget the terror in the eyes of my children.

We were trapped inside the house for three days. I remember the heavy sounds of gun fire and tanks screeching just a few kilometres away. There was no one else with us so we managed to survive with the limited food we had.

“I still remember the fear, oppression and humiliation that day brought. I cried so hard, I cried and cried, all the way back. I was terrified.”

This day was sadly just a sign of what was to come – the feelings of fear, paralysis and vulnerability. Five years later, that feeling of being trapped is one that I and other Yemeni women constantly feel. But what I and others strive to do is fight that feeling and do all that we can to lead, to help others, and to feel hope that this conflict will end, and our lives can return to normal.

At one stage, everything calmed down and people started to feel safe. That was until six missiles hit a nearby mosque destroying it completely. Most of the injured were women and children. While a close relative of mine was helping to rescue the injured, another airstrike took his life. We didn’t even have time to mourn him properly.

We were just one family out of millions forced from our homes and all that home means – family, memories, security, history, love. As Yemenis, we have been forced to live in schools, tents, mosques or with other friends and relatives. The risk of experiencing violence, instability and illness has increased. We are all farther from our support networks and are forced to walk long distances for things like water, food or other resources. A life of displacement feels tenuous.

On the road to seek refuge, I would often close my eyes, allowing my memories to start play in my mind. I would be back with my family, as we gathered on Fridays at my grandfather’s house to eat lunch and then sing and dance with our neighbours until midnight.

I would remember how peaceful life was and how my friends and I had dreamed of the future. We loved adventure. We sometimes camped in nearby villages and mountains, enjoying nature together while sharing our hopes and memories.

All of that seems like a dream now. We still hope to go back home one day, where we belong and where our memories reside. It’s ironic how a single terrible memory of a blue glowing light can bring an end to warm memories.

Manal prepares cash transfers with her Oxfam colleagues. Photo: Oxfam

I now live with my mother, sister and two brothers. My father passed away over 15 years ago. I am the oldest and the only provider for my family. I love them and I try to take care of their needs the best I can. They are my only support in this world and to them I am the same.

As an Oxfam worker, it brings joy to my heart when I see how the aid that we provide helps people smile and brings them hope at a time of displacement and vulnerability.

I have seen a lot during these five years of war, particularly how hard it is for women to survive these circumstances. Many women have become the sole caregivers and breadwinners – a huge burden to bear.

Job opportunities are scarcer and prices have soared, while suffocating social restrictions on women remain. When you are a woman in a country like Yemen, war becomes more difficult with each passing day. The struggle to survive gets harder, especially for the many women who have been forced to depend on men all their lives without proper education or skills to fall back on.

I am sharing my story as one of countless women who deserve more than just recognition.  Women across Yemen are rising every day, doing all they can in difficult conditions to protect their families and their communities. With an education and a good job that fills me with pride, I am one of the lucky ones. Worst-case scenarios for women and girls in Yemen after five years of war includes surviving sexual violence, malnutrition, abuse, early marriage and sometimes death.

Women who fled the Tahiz region of Yemen are now living in a makeshift camp in the countryside. Photo: Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

The women of Yemen had no hand in this war. All decisions were and are still taken by men. Violence is being perpetrated by men. Women have the strength to act together – to step out of the crowded rooms where we feel vulnerable and paralysed, to lead our families, communities and country. For the days ahead, I call on women to have an equal voice in ending this war and paving the way for a peaceful future for Yemen.

Since the beginning of the conflict in 2015, Oxfam teams have reached more than 3 million people with much-needed sanitation services, clean water, cash assistance and food vouchers. Even as COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, our staff continues to deliver aid, comfort and hope to the people of Yemen. But we need all the help we can get.

Please give what you can today.

This World Water Day, we share what matters

Water is undeniably an essential part of life. For all of us, safe clean water is crucial for staying healthy. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to regularly wash our hands of any coronaviruses that may be lurking. When communities have access to it, they can instead focus on other things like educating their children, growing their small businesses, and building sustainable livelihoods. In other words, safe clean water is a vital building block for beating poverty.

This upcoming Sunday marks World Water Day, when the world comes together to celebrate the importance of freshwater. To mark this important date in the calendar, we wanted to share the latest update with you from the devastating crisis in Yemen, where millions of Yemenis face the triple threat of war, disease and hunger. The war in Yemen that began in 2015 has left over 22 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. Of these people, 17.6 million are in desperate need of food and 2.9 million people have been left homeless.

We’re on the ground working across the worst-affected areas in Yemen, trying to help communities survive this ongoing crisis.

In Al Radhah village, we’ve installed solar panels and 15,000 metres of water pipes to successfully build a solar pump system – a system which is now providing a clean safe water supply for more than 1,818 households in 15 neighbouring villages.

Credit: Sami M. Jassar/Oxfam
Credit: Sami M. Jassar/Oxfam
Credit: Sami M. Jassar/Oxfam
Credit: Sami M. Jassar/Oxfam

We’ve provided clean water and sanitation to more than one million people, including in hard-to-reach areas of the country, by trucking in water, repairing water systems, delivering filters and jerry cans, as well as building latrines and organising cleaning campaigns.

Along with 21 other NGOs, we’ve signed an open letter to the United Nations Security Council calling on its members to take action to bring about an immediate ceasefire in Yemen, end the humanitarian crisis and support the UN Special Envoy's efforts towards an inclusive political solution to the conflict.

This World Water Day, let’s come together to fight for the people of Yemen. You can help us reach more families by donating what you can today. Thank you.