Life, Omar Abdullah Zaki says, has never been particularly easy. A day laborer who’s never had a truly reliable job, Zaki has seen two of his six children die before their first birthday, at least partially, he admits with shame, because of his inability to provide his family with enough to eat.
But while hard times are nothing new, he says, little had prepared him for the struggle he faces today. Work has all but dried up. Lacking a steady income, he’s borrowed money just to cover essential costs. And as debts have risen, his daily life has become a series of tragic dilemmas, leaving him sleepless as he debates whether to make debt payments, settle bills or buy food for his family.
“This is the worst it has ever been. I worry constantly, never ends,” he said, flinching with a mix of despair and humiliation. “For what, 20 days over the past two months, I’ve had to let my children go to bed hungry.”
Yemen has long suffered from chronic poverty, but the past year – filled with political turmoil amid a protest movement that ended the 30-year rule of Ali Abdullah Saleh and a determined offensive by al Qaida-linked insurgents – has pushed the country to what international aid agencies have called a dire humanitarian catastrophe. As the country’s fragile economy has been brought to the brink of collapse, unemployment has risen and prices of staples like rice and flour have skyrocketed, leaving huge number of Yemenis struggling to afford basics like food, fuel and electricity.
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According to the United Nations, as many as 10 million people – more than 40 percent of Yemen’s population – don’t have enough to eat; 267,000 Yemeni children suffer from severe malnutrition. Yet the problem has received little attention in the outside world, where Yemen’s role in the battle against international terrorism dominates coverage of the country.
Doctors in western Hudayda province, one of the hardest-hit areas, say they are struggling to cope with the numbers of malnourished children coming to local hospitals for treatment. Simultaneously, many aid workers say that efforts to expand are restrained by financial concerns. In a joint statement last week, Oxfam and Islamic Relief warned that unless they receive a huge infusion of cash, they’ll be forced to delay new food programs that were set to start this month.
“We have plans ready and are quite ready to scale up our operations,” said Lydia Tinka, the project manager of Oxfam’s Hudayda office. “While we had originally had plans to reach 300,000 people here, we’re limited to only being able to reach 100,000 due to a lack of funds.”
Even such assistance programs, however, reach only a fraction of the millions in desperate need of help. Many Yemenis in this impoverished region say they’ve almost given up hope for an improvement.
In al Hawak, a neighborhood of simple cinderblock homes in the inland market town of Beit al Faqih, the collective sense of desperation is obvious – even though Beit al Faqih has avoided the worst of Yemen’s turmoil and remains a rare bastion of relative calm. Still, even without the death and destruction of factional fighting, the fallout from the past year has left many here struggling to avoid starvation.
Mobbed by emaciated children in a two-room home she shares with her extended family, Ghana Fathi Hussein said it’s hard for her to imagine any way out of the crisis. Her husband, a motorcycle cab driver, averages less than $2 a day – barely enough to make payments on the family’s mounting debt, let alone feed their 11 children. Help, from the Yemeni government or the international community, has yet to arrive.
“Life’s never been easy, but I swear, compared to this, we were living in paradise two years ago,” she said, gesturing to the pencil-thin arms of her 10-year-old daughter. “We seek refuge in God.”
Hussein’s aunt, Fatima Ahmed, interrupted her niece to complain that the family has been forced to subsist almost entirely on bread and water.
“We can’t really worry about tomorrow,” she said. “We’re too busy dealing with the struggles of today.”