A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
Away from all the media attention, Nouria Naji continues her humanitarian work silently. Yemeni Education and Relief Organization, which she created in 2003, offers education services, helps the poor, and deals with street begging.
Naji’s name hit the limelight in 2013 when she received The Most Excellent Order of The British Empire award from Queen Elizabeth in honor of her charitable work – the first Arab woman to receive such an honor. Subsequently, she returned to the street children in Yemen, who call her Mama Nouria.
Naji spoke emotionally about the moment she received the award saying, “I felt goosebumps all over my body when I heard the word ‘Yemen’ echo through Buckingham Palace, it made me feel more honored”. Asked about the award, she said, “Its Allah’s honor bestowed upon me, because he chose this path for me. When the Queen placed the medal on my chest, all I thought about was Yemen”.
Regarding Yemeni reactions to the award, Nouria said, “The Yemeni president gave me an Order of Merit medal, and he verbally ordered his aides to ease my organization’s work and help with the funding. However, bureaucratic shackles stalled these orders, and then the war started”. Since receiving the award, she notes that she is, “living in a state of frustration, the country has deteriorated into a very dangerous place, the absence of governance and the law makes life very hard. People are making livelihoods out of the rights of others. We’ve reached a point where we can’t demand our own rights. We can’t help anyone and we can’t help ourselves”.
Naji grew up as a UK citizen; she came back to Yemen “because it’s my country, my father taught me to love my country and he used to tell us fond stories of Yemen. This served as a reminder of the place I belong to, so after my visit in 2003, I decided to stay and give something back”.
Naji considers her nationalism a principle she grew up with, and it hurts when others take it for granted: “I refused an offer from the UK embassy in Yemen to fly me back, to which they replied ‘You’ll be responsible for your stay in Yemen’. And many of my friends tried convincing me to go back, but I took the responsibility and stayed. I couldn’t just leave the 550 children who are under my care, and as a Yemeni I couldn’t endure thinking about myself while the country undergoes such events. However, the idea of leaving is lingering in my head now, I feel like I’ve paid a price for my nationalism.”
She elaborates on her frustration, adding, “I came to Yemen full of hope and eager to give something back, and to elevate people from poverty, in whatever way I could. The reality shocked me, the disregard for human beings, and hindrance of humanitarian work and those who work in this field. I fought back in the past, but after the war and the absence of government and rule of law, I found myself unable to take care of myself let alone others, which is forcing me to contemplate returning. In the end I’m only human, and my capacity to endure has a limit”.
The walls in her office are covered with awards from various organizations and official entities; but there is only one picture donning her wall, that of her and Queen Elizabeth. She says, “My team and I work in silence for nothing, all we seek is ordinary people’s appreciation”. While we tour the building it was evident that her focus wasn’t just on giving handouts, but to teach her beneficiaries sustainable skills. There’s a computer room for IT classes, the walls are decorated with children’s paintings from art classes, and the organization also tutors students after enrolling them in school. On the other side of the building is a workshop for women who make handmade crafts to be sold locally and internationally as a way of creating a steady income stream for families. The crafts are made to reflect Yemeni identity through the use of color and traditional style in a modern context, which is the image Naji is trying to portray about Yemen.
Naji, who left the private sector in the UK to engage in charitable work, says: “The organization was created in 2001 when I was thinking of a charitable project in Yemen. For a year I conducted feasibility studies. One of the first ideas was to open an home for the elderly, but that was disregarded because of cultural norms. By chance, I met a young girl in the Office to Combat Street Begging, and decided to help her rejoin a school. Her family refused because they were short of money, so I gave them money in exchange for her enrolment in school. The idea for the organization originated here: we would support poor families and send their children to school. The organization was launched in April 2003, we managed to send 550 children to school, some of whom are now in universities, and we also invest in small projects for them. In addition, we helped parents with small jobs, like shepherding goats. Eventually we ran into hurdles with government entities responsible for small projects.”
More than a thousand families benefited from the project, and 550 students made it to university or found jobs. On the current situation, Naji says, “In these conditions, we are focusing on relief more than education. We offer aid to families in the form of food, clothing, or medicine. We also help subsidize rent for some families. People are in need of services at the moment, not education”.
Although the organization’s building is damaged due to airstrikes, it’s still operational. About the challenges she faced, Naji says, “We were always committed. However, war wasn’t the only obstacle we faced; even when the building was damaged, we didn’t stop helping people any way we could. The real frustration was the absence of government, which made it harder for us to fulfill our duties”. Nouria Naji, who put Yemen ahead of everything, holds a great deal of love in her heart and immense pain she can’t hide in her eyes. As our conversation came to an end, she called on Yemenis to take care of their country, because it’s the most valuable entity we own.