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McGill Syrian Students’ Association hold talk on Yemen

Documentary screening and Yemenite student shed light on ignored crisis

On March 13, the McGill Syrian Students’ Association, Amnesty International, and the World Islamic and Middle Eastern Students’ Association hosted speaker Ala’a Ahmed and screened the FRONTLINE PBS documentary “Inside Yemen” to raise awareness on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Ahmed was one of the organizers during Yemen’s uprising in 2011. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Political Science at Concordia University, after coming to Canada as a refugee. He also co-founded a media advocacy organization called SupportYemen.

The documentary, released in July 2017, focuses on the complete lack of compensation for workers in Yemen due to the conflict and its effects on their daily lives: “[It was] the first time all employees in the country receive […] coupons because we have not received a salary,” says one man interviewed in a grocery store. Garbage workers were not paid, leaving the streets filled with garbage that has caused bacteria to collect and infiltrate the water. This has effectively led to a cholera epidemic, leaving many hospitalized for extreme dehydration. According to the World Health Organization, there are over 300,000 cases of cholera and 1,600 accounts of death by cholera as of mid-2017. According to a nurse interviewed in the documentary, the number of malnutrition cases has doubled since the war began.

Miryama Abdulaziz, one of the hosts, explained that the event’s goal was to shed light on what is happening in Yemen, and raise funds for Mona Relief. This organization focuses on relief, giving people food, medicine, blankets, and other basic supplies.

Abdulaziz further described that, “each family receives a basket for the price of $30-35 USD, [which] contains wheat, sugar, rice, oil, and powdered milk — enough for a family of six to eight people for one month.” Since 2015, the organization itself has been “able to support more than 40,000 people as of July 2017.”

After Abdulaziz’s intervention, Ahmed described his experience in Yemen during the 2011 uprising.

“The perfect places for us to go [for protests] were the universities where more active young people were. […] Everything we did was voluntary, we worked hard together to build tents and to have sit-ins, but the government cracked down, and with more people being hurt or killed, the more international attention there was to our cause.”

Ahmed then recounted the political events that led to the humanitarian disaster that plagues Yemen today. Saudi Arabia and the US campaigned an initiative to propose that the former president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, step down. They offered Saleh immunity according to the agreement, and proposed that his vice president Abdul Mansour Hadi lead the transitional period as president, from 2012 to 2014. Saleh, unwilling to lose power, formed an alliance with the Houthis, a political religious group from Northern Yemen in 2015. He managed to take over Sana’a, the country’s capital city. Hadi took refuge in the port city of Aden causing the outbreak of the war.

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched a military intervention to restore Hadi to power. But the war settled into a stalemate. “Officially the Houthis remain in control of Sanaa, the capital, and much of the North, while the Saudi-UAE coalition controls much of the South,” Ahmed added, “A comprehensive Saudi-UAE blockade and air campaign has caused famine conditions, the spread of communicable diseases such as cholera, and a wave of internal displacement.”

He then expanded on the flow of information in and out of Yemen: “both the Houthis and Saudi-UAE coalition tightly control access for journalists, with the media centering its attention on an Iranian-Saudi proxy war.” Saudi-backed media claims that Iran supports Houthis fighters, while the opposing side offers a vision of Saudi adventurism.

The war has four main axes of motion. Ahmed expanded on each of them: “the first and most familiar [axis] is essentially a northern conflict with forces aligned with former president Saleh and his former allies the Houthis, against the Saudi backed coalition forces loyal to the displaced transitional president Hadi. [Second, is the] strong separatist movement in the South of Yemen […] and a developing conflict between the secessionist southern transitional council and president Hadi’s government.The third axis is an increasingly active jihadist movement.”

The fourth axis revolves around regional politics. “Saudi Arabia and the UAE have different interests in [Yemen] […] with Saudi Arabia being more focused on airstrikes and targeting the Houthis, while the UAE is more focused on the South and supporting the separatist movement,” explained Ahmed.

Saudi airstrikes often target schools. “Youth in Yemen who comprise 75 per cent of the population are denied an education and meaningful action to political processes,” stated Ahmed, adding that the disappointed youth were left with few options but to join either side of the conflict.
Ahmed then put the conflict into geographic context, explaining that Saudi Arabia controls almost all land and sea borders surrounding Yemen. This means it controls everything that goes inside the country, sometimes taking medical equipment away in meticulous searches of humanitarian aid packages.

“One of the reasons [they do this] is to frustrate the people. The Houthis are not the actual government in the country, and the less services provided and the more frustrated the people are, […] [the] easier [it is] to get some kind of uprising against the Houthis from [the] inside.”

Jeeda, the president of the Syrian Students’ Association, explained the group’s involvement in the event. “The reason [why] many of us at the SSA were passionate about this initiative is because we empathize and understand the struggles with our brothers and sisters in Yemen. We can only imagine the suffering they’re going through and it’s very familiar to us with everything happening in Syria. There’s limited media coverage on it and no clubs in McGill are addressing this issue.”

Ahmed was “happy to share [his] own personal experience as an activist who is involved and who is living in Canada.” He explains that “the war is never talked about in the media and [he] wanted to bring some attention to it. However, he concludes “the most outstanding challenge is that Yemen has fractured in ways that will make any negotiated settlement extremely challenging and fragile. […] Reaching an end to the war will be difficult, and doing so will only be the first step in a very difficult reconstruction process.”