A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
The absence of state institutions in Taiz in recent years has created a massive gap in people’s lives, especially at a time when they are in severe need of security and development services. Due to the suffering this absence has caused, a number of youth initiatives have appeared that make a significant difference in the lives of people in Taiz, despite the dire conditions. These initiatives have become a model for collective community efforts that reflect the responsibility these young women and men have towards their communities and their city, which has been hijacked by war.
Scores of initiatives have emerged, despite the limited resources, introducing emergency replacements for governmental institutions. Street cleaning and lighting, education, emotional support and entertainment activities for children as well as awareness programs on health, culture and environment are among the activities these initiatives have been carrying out. In addition, these young women and men’s involvement in food and other forms of humanitarian aid distribution, done with relentless enthusiasm, has earned them the respect and appreciation of their communities.
Youth initiatives reflected the true face of Taiz when they managed to break the city’s siege, since August 2015. The siege is one of many consequences of the ongoing battles between Houthi forces coming from the north and forces that support the government. Since the very first weeks of the siege, the initiatives took the lead to deliver medicine and food to those in need as well as oxygen tubes to hospitals. Many of these young women and men used camels and mules to transport aid to the city and keep people alive, despite the siege and the fighting. Some crossed long distances and commuted across mountains in order to save the wounded or families displaced by war and left without food or shelter.
Maha Awn, 25, tells her story of nine years of volunteering with initiatives in Taiz with pride: “We planted trees on road roundabouts and cleaned public parks and pavements regularly under an initiative titled ‘Roads of Hope’. This was before the war. When the fighting started, the activities switched to aid and other priorities defined by the catastrophic reality of war in the city.”
More than 1,000 young women and men have been involved in over 100 initiatives. Their enthusiasm and energy has been focused on the suffering caused by war. They became volunteers and community based civil society alternatives for the paralyzed state institutions. They kept working according to the needs in their communities. The We Are All Taiz Coalition, the Women’s Coalition, the National Coalition for Development, and the Charity Development Council are some of the spaces that brought the initiatives’ efforts together in Taiz. As initiatives grew rapidly with an average of 7 to 20 members each, these coalitions that bring several initiatives under one umbrella were formed to organize and bring efforts together.
Young women and men
Representation of women and men differs from one initiative to the other. Some initiatives consist of either women or men; other initiatives include women and men and ensure activities address gender issues among their list of activities. Generally women constitute 40 per cent of membership of the initiatives in Taiz, according to statistics by al-Janad Regional Youth Initiatives Network. What is interesting is that most members are young women and men between 18 and 30 years. Even though the youngest members are recent high school graduates, these young members view volunteering with initiatives as a way out of the war imposed on their city by the fighting militias.
Malek al-Kamel, Head of al-Janad Regional Youth Initiatives Networks, sees that difficulties in obtaining funding as well as the absence of logistical and tangible support are among the challenges that face initiatives in Taiz. Al-Kamel still finds that Taiz is an encouraging environment for youth volunteerism; however, he would like to see further collaboration between initiatives and the city’s local council. This collaboration, according to him, has to focus efforts under a more sustainability-based vision that goes beyond existing humanitarian aid and involve further developmental efforts in order to revive the livelihoods of Taiz and its inhabitants.
One of many stories we can tell about initiatives in Taiz took place in the mountainous area of Jabal Taluq. A youth initiative was formed in order to deliver food and medicine to the besieged Taiz city. Among the initiative’s most significant achievements was transporting oxygen tubes to the city’s hospital, which had almost run out of oxygen supply at the time.
The initiative was mainly focused on three identified priorities: food security, water and medicine supplies. The founder of the initiative, Ibrahim al-Jabri, takes us back to the beginnings of the initiative. Towards the end of 2014, Ibrahim was still looking for a name for the team that launched a social media hashtag called Matlabi (My Demand), whose aim was to spread awareness of the National Dialogue Conference outcomes. When the war broke out, Ibrahim and his colleagues still insisted on carrying out their call for peace by referring to the National Dialogue Conference Outcomes as the collective doctrine for the country. Sadly, in 2015 the war had the final say and the country became overwhelmed by chaos. This is when team, which grew to include 65 young women and men, became a humanitarian initiative, Qafilat al-Tahadi (Resilience Caravan).
With charitable support, the initiative managed to restore the Orthopedics department at al-Thawra hospital in Taiz. Within their medical caravans, they also managed to transport 11 tons of medicine to a number of hospitals and other health facilities. Their efforts also covered the chronically ill under a special project for this group of patients they called Nara’ak (Taking Care of You). Additionally, they covered the cost of medical assistance for more than 200 wounded civilians as well as wheelchairs for people with disabilities. As it continued working, the initiative’s activities expanded to cover displaced persons from Taiz, Sana’a, Aden and other cities affected by
war. With 60 others, the initiative led to the establishment of the We Are All Taiz Coalition where efforts were united to bring life and peace back to a city surrounded by war. On top of the humanitarian efforts, the initiative still managed to organize cultural exhibitions and events calling for peace. On 17 July 2017, Ibrahim al-Jabri survived an assassination attempt that targeted him while he was on his way to implement a project. The incident created a negative turning point for the initiative’s members who understandably became fearful; however, this was eased with time because of the community’s support and faith in them. Today, Qafilat al-Tahadi has become a non-governmental organization that works for the same objectives it established as an initiative. The organization continues it humanitarian action without any partisan or ideological agenda. Activities keep expanding to meet the needs produced by the situation on the ground in Taiz. The challenges grow with each expansion, but so does the resilience of the caravan that is led by the spirit of youth in Taiz to make room for light amongst the darkness of war and destruction.
Mohammed Mahroos is a Yemeni journalist with special interests in humanitarian and peace journalism. He is a member of the Yemeni Investigative Journalism Network (YAMAN).