Generation of Yemeni kids may lose out on their future

Yemeni children at a school in the port city of Hodeidah, which was damaged in the country's ongoing conflict pitting the Saudi-led Arab coalition against Shi'ite Houthi rebels.
Yemeni children at a school in the port city of Hodeidah, which was damaged in the country's ongoing conflict pitting the Saudi-led Arab coalition against Shi'ite Houthi rebels.PHOTO: AFP

War has halted education of 2m kids on top of 1.6m already out of school before the conflict

SANAA (AFP) - Roua Ahmed's classes ended abruptly when her school in Yemen was bombed, but the 12-year-old still clings to her dream of getting an education.

She is one of hundreds of thousands of young Yemenis forced out of school since fighting escalated with a Saudi-led intervention against Shi'ite Houthi rebels two years ago.

The war has since killed around 7,700 people, including nearly 1,550 children, and shut down hundreds of schools.

After hers was bombed, Roua sought out classes at a mosque in her home city of Taez. But as clashes escalated, her family saw little choice but to flee.

Braving sniper fire, they walked 10km before finding a taxi to the capital, Sanaa.

VICTIMISED

My education has stopped because of the war. I don't know what I did wrong - I didn't do anything.

ROUA AHMED, a 12-year-old who is one of hundreds of thousands of young Yemenis forced out of school since fighting escalated with a Saudi-led intervention against Shi'ite Houthi rebels two years ago.

"I tried to register myself at a school here, but my application was rejected because the classes are overcrowded," Roua said.

"My education has stopped because of the war. I don't know what I did wrong - I didn't do anything."

The slender girl, who loves painting and dreams of becoming a teacher, is one of 3.5 million Yemeni children out of school, according to Unicef, the United Nations children's agency.

The fighting has halted the education of nearly two million children on top of the 1.6 million already out of school before the conflict, it said.

"If Yemen's current generation misses out on school, the long-term consequences will be another generation that is likely to perpetuate the cycle of violence," it warned in a report last November.

As a result, "an entire generation of children risks losing out on their future", said Ms Shabia Mantoo, Yemen spokesman for the UN refugee agency.

Houthi rebels seized control of Yemen's capital in September 2014 and went on to expand their grip across the country. As they closed in on Aden-based President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi, forcing him into exile, the Arab coalition launched a military operation in his defence on March 26, 2015.

Unicef has since counted 212 direct attacks on schools, including air strikes that killed students.

The fighting has put 1,640 Yemeni schools out of service, with 1,470 destroyed or damaged and others converted into refugee shelters or barracks for fighters, it said.

Meanwhile, in a country on the brink of famine, necessity has forced many children to beg or seek informal jobs to support their families. Some end up joining armed groups - the UN's High Commissioner for Human Rights says nearly 1,500 children have been recruited, mostly by the Houthis.

Sixteen-year-old Ahmed Salem has lived in a camp for displaced people in Marib, east of Sanaa, since fleeing the nearby town of Sarwah. Instead of going to school, the teenager spends his days trying to provide for his siblings.

"I left my education the day the fighting started in our area," Ahmed said. "Now, I go out every morning to try to get food for my family. I go to organisations again and again to try to get aid."

Although schools do operate in some areas, their work is hampered by overcrowding and frequent staff strikes over unpaid salaries. Many parents cannot afford stationery for their children.

People also fear air raids. One strike attributed to the Saudi-led coalition hit a school in northern Yemen in August, killing 10 children.

"The students are traumatised," said Mr Abdullah al-Ezzi, a teacher at Al-Hussein school in Sanaa. "They get scared when warplanes fly over their neighbourhoods. They are scared of air strikes."

Those who drop out of school are easy prey for extremists, who have taken advantage of the conflict in Yemen to strengthen their hold on parts of the south and east.

"In the best case, (dropouts) go to unregulated, religious study centres or training courses at mosques, thinking they offer an alternative to a formal education," said Mr Ibrahim Nagi, a teacher in Taez.

But many fear that such places are used by militants to radicalise and recruit young people.

Meanwhile, Roua Ahmed continues to dream of going back to school. "Memories of my teachers and my classmates bring me to tears," she said. "I want my calm life back."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2017, with the headline 'Generation of Yemeni kids may lose out on their future'. Print Edition | Subscribe