YEMEN: Letter writers tap vein of despair in refugee camp


ADEN - "I arrived in Yemen in 2008 from Mogadishu," the letter starts. Hawo Yousuf, 28, now in a refugee camp, spent her last money on having a letter written to inform the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) of her plight.

It explains that militiamen came to her house in September 2007. "They hit [my husband] badly and wanted to rape me in front of him. He tried to protect me, but unfortunately they killed [him] with a big knife. I was seven months pregnant."

After that she took her three children and left for Bosasso in Somalia's Puntland region, from where she fled on a four-day perilous boat journey to Yemen. "The petrol ran out. We were at sea around 13 days. crammed in and ill-treated by the smugglers."

In the end a passing vessel supplied the marooned boat with petrol and the refugees were finally able to continue their journey. However, after having been at sea for nearly two weeks the cries of the hungry and thirsty children became too much for the smugglers. "The smugglers threw two of them into the sea. I saw my kids dying," Hawo's letter said, concluding: "I hope you will consider my situation."

Hawo currently lives with some 16,800 refugees (mainly from Somalia) in Kharaz refugee camp, southern Yemen, about 140km west of Aden.

Somali refugees receive prima facie refugee status in Yemen and UNHCR estimates that some 174,000 refugees live there.

The camp, an old military base, is flanked by mountains and barren desert, and consists of small clusters of brick houses and tents. Crisscrossed by dusty streets in the sweltering heat, the refugees survive thanks to World Food Programme aid and casual labouring jobs in Aden.

Somali refugees in Yemen, including in the Kharaz camp, are allowed to work, but the country is the poorest in the Middle East and ill-equipped to cope with large numbers of refugees.

Letters to the UNHCR and NGOs have proved to be a lifeline for some in the past.

"I consider those letters an extra call for help, an individual exercise through which refugees claim their rights," said Rocco Nuri, UNHCR's external relations officer.

A letter writer's experience

Only a few of the refugees speak English, so Somali refugee Jamal Ahmed Mohammed, 29, keeps busy: "I write around 20 letters a month. I remember specific letters because of the difficult life stories told in them. Most people in Kharaz are in a difficult situation," he said.

Charging 3,000 YR (about US$15), or the equivalent of a month's salary to most of the refugees lucky enough to find work, Mohammed gives voice to many of the residents who would otherwise not have a way of communicating their pleas and complaints.

According to the UNHCR's Nuri, the letters are followed up with partner organizations supplying humanitarian aid in the camp.

"The most common request from refugees in Kharaz camp is resettlement to a third country," said Nuri. "Unfortunately, resettlement is not a right and only the most vulnerable refugees are given priority."

Many of the letters also refer to the limited help refugees get from the medical services in the camp.

"No shining future for our children"

A single mother of seven, Mumina Burale, believes her letter will help her. Her story is a testimony to the horrors of war. "We were attacked several times," she writes in her letter. "My father [and] two of my brothers were killed; they were firing on them until their bodies were cut to pieces," she wrote.

"In Yemen, although we found some peace, life is very difficult. [There's] no shining future for our children." After 12 years in the camp her frustrations are evident from her letter. "I am really fed up with such a life and don't know what to do or where to go!"

Meanwhile, Nuri would prefer not to receive such letters, "because that would mean the refugees' needs are being better addressed, and that living conditions are improving."

(Source:IRIN News)