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Dreams and fears of Syrian refugees in Yemen

For Syrians living in the shadows in Yemen, a life that was once fairly quiet and stable has become fearfully uncertain
As of mid-2014, close to 2,000 Syrians had registered as asylum seekers in Yemen (AFP)

When Abu Saleh* sits down to talk about why Syria’s unremitting civil war forced him to seek refuge in Yemen, he stops every few minutes to scroll through photos on his phone.

“See here,” he said, pointing to a snapshot of six young men, their grins and embrace of one another discernible even through the phone’s cracked screen. “All dead.” More photos follow. More loved ones lost to Syria's spiraling violence.

Abu Saleh then returns to explain why Jordan is too expensive, in Turkey he doesn’t speak the language, the welcome for refugees in Egypt has grown painfully thin, uncertainty has long loomed in Iraq and when he briefly found himself in Lebanon, Hezbollah tried to recruit him.

Syria’s neighbouring countries - whose infrastructure and social fabric have been buckling under the strain of hosting the majority of the more than three million refugees that have fled Syria’s bloody civil war - did not seem like options for him. But neither did remaining in Syria.

The 25-year-old former soldier feared persecution after he fled Bashar al-Assad’s army when he received orders to fire at protests in early 2011 challenging the government’s rule. This was all before Syria came to be called the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today. 

Abu Saleh fled to Yemen two years ago to escape the fate of his friends in the photos.

Yemen’s low cost of living, ease of obtaining entry and relative stability at the time of his arrival offered Abu Saleh - like many of the Syrians who have found their way to the southern Gulf nation - a potentially ephemeral retreat from the bombs of his home country.

“Any place is better than Syria…[but] we came to Yemen thinking we would stay for a month or two,” said Abu Shadi*, who arrived in Sana’a with his four children and his wife when he says he could no longer sleep at night in his village outside southern Damascus without fear he wouldn’t wake up.

Unprecedented violence

Now Abu Saleh and Abu Shadi find themselves in similar predicaments - in a country that initially offered a relatively safe refuge, but has since found itself desperately clinging to the notion of a peaceful transition to avoid its own violent decent into conflict.

In September, the Houthis, an insurgent group with Zaidi Shiite roots and a history of battling the central government for greater recognition, engendered a new political order after a brief but bloody five-day battle in the capital Sana’a. They seized control of a major military instillation and other government structures, almost immediately sparking a sectarian backlash from Sunni extremist groups like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Since then, the Houthis have quickly spread throughout areas of the country, undermining the central government’s authority and locking themselves in ongoing clashes with AQAP in some of the country’s most remote areas.

Sana’a and other areas have witnessed a number of bombings claimed by AQAP’s subsidiary organisation, Ansar al-Sharia, that have resulted in heavy civilian casualties, furthering fears that unprecedented sectarian violence is exploding and that civilians are being caught in the crossfire.    

“Right now things are deteriorating in Yemen, and we are becoming as scared as we were in Syria,” said Abu Malik*. He spoke from his friend Abu Shadi’s rented house in a neighbourhood in southern Sana’a. Abu Malik found his way to Yemen after the deadly chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, in the suburbs of Damascus in August 2013.

Abu Shadi and Abu Malik saw one “Arab Spring” attempt to bring down a regime destroy their livelihoods and homes. Now they cautiously observe while another treads a fracturing political path. 

“It could happen and we would be some of the first victims,” said Abu Shadi. “Our neighbours tell us we don’t have any protection… no tribe to protect us.”

'State within a state'

Like most displaced communities (including Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Iraqi populations in Yemen), explained Nick Stanton, a public information officer for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Yemen, in times of uncertainty, Syrians find themselves some of the most vulnerable.

“What happens if there is insecurity or any change in circumstance, their [displaced communities’] roots in that place aren’t that deep,” explained Stanton. He adds that due to the nature of the conflict in Syria - where thorny sectarian and other political identities have manifested in violence - those fleeing the country “carry a lot of baggage with them".

The regional implications of the Houthis’ ascent to power are cause for concern for Abu Saleh. He is worried that the Houthis’ close ties to Iran, an ardent supporter of Assad’s regime, could further complicate Syrians' presence in Yemen.

“If the Houthis are running things, they might work with the Syrian embassy”, a place Abu Saleh said many asylum seekers fear in general, wary of government persecution.     

Some have accused the Houthis of attempts to carve themselves out a Hezbollah-like “state within a state” inside Yemen. But Houthis inside the political office who spoke to MEE in Sana’a deny these claims. There has never been talk within Houthi circles about strengthening ties with other Iranian allies like Syria, they said. 

The most up-to-date statistics from Yemen’s government in 2013, given to UNHCR, say that over 12,000 Syrians came through Sana’a’s airport, and as of mid-2014, close to 2,000 registered with the agency as asylum seekersUNHCR acknowledges that the 12,000 figure is likely much higher. 

High unemployment, uncertainty

Abu Saleh considers himself the “luckiest” asylum seeker in Yemen. He found a job at a hospital because Yemen is one of the few countries that would recognise his medical degree. His steady income represents the broad spectrum of those coming to Yemen from Syria.

Many fleeing Syria’s violence have established themselves and are running small businesses. But more troubling for relief organisations like UNHCR is the increasing vulnerability of Syrians as they cope not only with insecurity but the country’s accompanying economic downturn and rising cost of living.

Several are running out of the savings they brought with them, thinking Yemen would be a temporary solution. 

“We’ve started to sell our wives' valuables,” said Abu Shadi. “We are one step away from begging.”

A survey conducted by UNHCR in Sana’a in 2013 found that almost 50 percent of the 1,300 Syrians they interviewed in Sana’a did not have a source of income and were jobless. Yemen’s own unemployment rate is at least 35 percent.

For Mariam, who declined to give her last name, begging in the streets is her only option. The 30-year-old woman came to Yemen two years ago and spends her days at a busy intersection in the capital. She too fears her host country becoming a battleground.

“We are scared, but there’s no choice,” she said, pointing to her relatives’ two young children that accompany her as she asks drivers for cash.

UNHCR hopes that a new programme called temporary protection, introduced in August, can serve as a safety net for those like Mariam who are slipping through the cracks. The scheme, backed by the Yemeni government, grants access to services typically afforded to refugees without having to complete the process of registering as one - a task that UNHCR admits it has trouble keeping up with given the influx of refugees entering Yemen, mainly from the Horn of Africa.

The head of UNHCR, Johannes Van Der Klaauw, said so far the programme has had limited success. He attributes this to a fear that many asylum seekers have that once they come forward, it may jeopardise their chances of returning home one day. Also, as a marginalised community, the lack of cohesiveness has made outreach for the programme challenging.

Despite shortcomings, Van Der Klaauw offered praise for Yemen’s inclination to receive fleeing Syrians at a time when wealthy Gulf nations and other western countries are being chastised for allowing other countries to bear a disproportionate burden of the country’s displaced population. 

“A poor conflict-ridden country such as Yemen nowadays still adheres to this traditional hospitality and openness and generosity that is has always shown to refugees and is now also extended to the [Syrians],” he says.

Though Abu Shadi worries as his financial status becomes dire, he draws hope that Yemen will avoid “becoming the next Syria.”

“Yemenis say specifically we don’t want that,” he said. “Yemenis are able to sit with each other and co-exist peacefully.” 

*Pseudonyms used at request of interviewees