Yemen: Dedication in the time of famine
In Yemen, an unprecedented food crisis has unfolded over the past two and a half years. It is hard enough to work in a country that is on the brink of famine, it’s hardest when this country is your own.
When he graduated in Exeter University in the UK he thought he would be going back to his country during a time many of his generation thought was the beginning to a prosperous future. But in winter 2009, Ahmad Al-Saidi would go home every day passing by scores of people on the streets of Amran; displaced women and children who were unable to sleep because they were too cold and hungry.
“Throughout the night we could hear children crying; It was too cold and they could not sleep. It was so cold and dry that their faces and hands cracked and bled,” he said
Ahmad, had just started working for WFP in Amran, which is less than a one-hour drive from Sana’a. He says his time there was the worst and happiest of his life.
“It was a time of major displacement from Sa’ada to Amran; there had been almost 1700 displaced families in town and within one month the number shot up to 9,000 families. All of them were newly displaced. A small town like that could not handle this exodus,” he recalls.
Ahmad and his team worked from 8 am until 3 am the following day. After some only a few days they got an emergency response rolling; they secured shelters and distributed ready-to-eat meals on the same day of families arriving fleeing violence that had erupted in Sa’ada.
“Many people arrived with only the clothes they were wearing. I cannot ever forget what I had seen during these weeks. But at the end when I remember their reaction when they and their children received what they needed, that was a feeling I will never forget either. It was the most difficult phase in my life and it was also the most rewarding,” he says.
The then newly-recruited Ahmad lost 25kg dropping to 60kg in only two months on his first brush with WFP.
You get out of the emergency, but the emergency will find you
Ahmad left Amran four years ago to Hodeidah City, Yemen’s major port city. He wanted to leave the emergency work and join WFP in an area that is not in direct contact with the internal conflict that was going on in the north at the time. But it wasn’t before long that Hodeidah and surrounding areas, which Ahmad as Head of Programmes is responsible for, became Yemen’s emergency hub.
Hodeidah port is a major gateway to Yemen’s commercial and humanitarian cargo. Almost 70 percent of imports reach Yemen through the port that is currently in the heart of the conflict.
When conflict flared in 2015, the UN evacuated its foreign staff from Hodeidah. Ahmad and his Yemeni colleagues had to decide whether to stay in Hodeidah or leave to any place of their choice. They all stayed.
“We could not go; if Hodeidah office is closed at any point this could jeopardise WFP’s entire operation in Yemen. I became the person in charge and my team and I worked round the clock to ensure deliveries and distributions were never disrupted,” he says.
Ahmad has not taken time off or seen his family — who left Yemen and are now in Egypt — for more than a year. He is too concerned that if he takes time off the flow of work would be affected and he would blame himself.
“We have shortage of staff and if food did not arrive on time or anything goes wrong I will feel guilty; people will suffer because of me wanting to rest. I wouldn’t have that,” he said. “We work hard but we are providing indispensable assistance; without it there could be famine or people could even die of hunger. When we see people receiving food and how they say it helps them because they have no other means, this gives meaning to all our hard work.”
WFP is providing food to seven million people in Yemen in areas that are on the brink of Famine. Hodeidah and Hajjah — one part of Ahmad’s patch — are two or the worst affected areas in the country.
“What Yemen is going through now is unprecedented; it has never happened in my lifetime or even my parents’ lifetimes,” he says.
Ahmad says that pain is forgotten. He hopes one day Yemen will forget its pain.