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In Yemen, it's who you know that stops you starving

Refugees, poor local residents say they have not received aid because they are not connected to the local sheikh
Millions are in need of aid in Yemen; some are more lucky than others (AFP)

TAIZ, Yemen - Taha al-Maqtari, a man in his 60s who has been displaced from his home, stays in Abo Thar al-Ghafari school in Taiz's al-Shimayateen district with his daughter-in-law and two grandsons. None of them are originally from the district and have been forced to shelter at this school.

Humanitarian aid arrives in al-Ofa village in the district and goes directly to the local sheikh, Abdulghani Abdurrahman. According to Maqtari, the sheikh distributes the aid only to his friends and relatives who are originally from the area.

"I go to the sheikh’s house every day, asking him for wheat, flour and cooking oil, but he says that I am not a resident of the village and the aid is not for the displaced people," Maqtari told Middle East Eye.

Maqtari is unable to work, and his only son, Yosri, died in a car accident three years ago. At that point Maqtari became responsible for taking care of his daughter-in-law, Ahlam, and his two grandsons Omar, 12, and Ahmed, seven. Maqtari also has three daughters, all of them married.

He is originally from al-Gahmaliya in Taiz city, where he owns a house. When the war broke out in his neighbourhood in June 2015, he fled the area towards al-Shimayateen.

"When I was in Taiz, I used to depend on charitable associations and people to help me in my livelihood, but when I came to this village, I came to feel that I am not a Yemeni, as the sheikh ignores me," Maqtari said.

There is little spare space in the school, which is full of displaced people, so he shares a room with his daughter-in-law and her two sons. When they arrived there, his daughter-in-law sold her jewellery to buy food.

"The jewellery is gone, and only we have wheat and flour for three weeks, then I do not know what will happen, as the sheikh still refuses to provide us with aid," he said.

He called on relief organisations to send representatives to deliver aid directly to beneficiaries, rejecting the idea of trusting sheikhs with distribution.

"We only eat bread and tea in the morning and evening, and aseed [a meal consisting of wheat, salt and water] for lunch."

The family has not eaten meat since Eid, more than three months ago, when one of his neighbours gave them some.

Taha Al-Maqtari with his grandson in front of their room in the school (MEE/N Sakkaf)

Anwar Al-Qahiri, 42, has fallen on hard times since losing his job in Taiz city. He is originally from al-Ofa village, and he does not have a relationship with local sheikh Abdurrahman.

"I stayed for several months without humanitarian aid, even if all of my neighbours get aid from the sheikh. When I tried to tell the sheikh, he said that he will give to me next time, but this next time did not come," Qahiri told MEE.

Qahiri is responsible for five family members, and depends on charitable people to provide them with food. When Qahiri's uncle – a friend of Sheikh Abdurrahman - found out that he would not give Qahiri aid, he intervened.

"Just last month, I started getting a 50kg bag of flour, a 50kg bag of wheat and cooking oil," Qahiri said. “My uncle is a friend of the sheikh, and he told him to provide me with some aid.”

Abdurrahman denied allegations that he distributed aid only to his friends and relatives. They were his main priority he said, and after serving them he distributes the rest, he told MEE.

"The relief organisations ask me to write down the names of the poor people in my village, and I write the names of the original people in my village. Definitely, like any other sheikh, I will start by writing [the names of] myself and my relatives, then I will write [the names of] others," Abdurrahman said.

He then quoted the Prophet Mohammed, who said that charity begins at home.

Abdurrahman told MEE there were hundreds of displaced people in his village, adding that he is not responsible for them. Instead, he was only responsible for the residents of his village.

"There are many displaced people, such as Maqtari, but I am not willing to write their names down for any relief organisations, and I will not provide them with aid - they are not my citizens."

Relief organisations to send coordinators

The relief organisations do not come to the rural areas regularly, and that is why they have depended on sheikhs and other people in the villages. After finding out about the alleged bias of the sheikhs, they now plan to send a coordinator to rural areas.

Esam Qaid, a coordinator with the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre, told MEE that the group had sent thousands of food baskets to the rural areas during the past month after receiving the names of the beneficiaries from local sheikhs and others.

"We received several complaints from residents and displaced people in the rural areas that sheikhs distribute the humanitarian aid to their friends and relatives, so the centre is planning to send coordinators to the rural areas. Those coordinators will be responsible for writing down the names of the beneficiaries instead of the sheikhs," Qaid said.

The aid his group sends consists of flour, wheat, cooking oil and beans.

Even so, while it reaches relatively safe rural areas, places under siege by Houthi fighters, which are in dire need, do not receive enough assistance, Qaid said.