By Ansar Rasheed
ADEN, Yemen, 15 September 2011 – It is the fourth day of Ramadan in Aden, a port city in the south of Yemen, and the temperature has reached over 40 degrees centigrade. Although it is summer holiday, the yard of Belqis School in Aden is full of children. Some play under the sun, while others attend educational sessions in a tent organized by UNICEF. The children are from families displaced by fighting in the restive region of Abyan between government troops and militants suspected of links to al-Qaeda.
The school is one of dozens in Aden provided by the government as shelter for displaced populations from Abyan. Belqis houses nearly 100 families, approximately 750 people. Of those, nearly one-third are children under the age of 14. Similar scenes are found in nearly 60 other schools across the city.
The extreme heat is affecting the displaced families at Belqis School, taking an undue toll on the elderly and the very young. Classrooms that once were filled with desks and chairs have now become makeshift homes, with some rooms accommodating up to 24 people.
Yemen is one of the poorest country in the region and faces a number of challenges, including anti-government protests that began in February, clashes with militants in the north that have displaced thousands of people, and an increasing threat from southern separatists and al-Qaeda.
Impact on youth
Amani Ali, 10, fled with her family from Abyan in the middle of the night about two and a half months ago but the details of that night are still as vivid as ever.
“The sound of the aircraft is still in my ears day and night,” she said. “There were heavy steps coming closer and closer to our door and then suddenly my father opened the door and a guy wearing a military uniform asked us to leave.” Amani added sadly, “I still remember my mother crying, refusing to leave.”
“What hurts the most is that we never imagined that we would leave our area, our friends and neighbours,” explained Saleh Salim, 14. “That was totally sudden, but we had to run to save our lives.”
When Saleh’s family arrived in Aden in the middle of the night, exhausted and confused, they were brought to the Belqis school and given a room to share with other families that they did not know.
UNICEF provides support
Amani and Saleh are both members of a WASH committee, a group of volunteers trained by UNICEF to provide awareness on hygiene and sanitation in the school. In each school housing displaced populations, 15 members between the ages of 13 and 18 are selected to do hygiene promotion. The young people are given two days of intensive training and are supervised by staff from a local NGO.
“Children are the most badly affected by war,” stressed Safaa Ali, a psychosocial worker supported by UNICEF. “They are still traumatized. Every time they hear a plane they get scared and run away.”
The programme aims to provide psychological and social support to the children and their families to enable them to cope with their current situation.
“War is doing no good for anybody,” said Saleh. “It is destroying everything, but we still have our dignity.”