Yemeni trailblazer supports refugees and Yemenis during conflict
Throughout her life, Asia Al-Mashreqi has defied the odds to achieve her dreams. Every step she has taken to support displaced Yemenis and refugees has also helped to redefine the role of women in traditional Yemeni society.
One of eight siblings born to a poor family in Noqum on the outskirts of the Yemeni capital Sana’a, the first challenge Al-Mashreqi faced was continuing her education beyond ninth grade. “My entire family held the belief that boys were entitled to receive education while girls should stay at home,” she explained. “They wanted to marry me off to one of my cousins.”
A neighbour who saw potential in the bookish teenager told her about a local institute that supported girls’ education. The material support the institute provided secured her family’s blessing and taught Al-Mashreqi a lesson about the importance of women’s financial independence.
She finished high school and was hired as a teacher while also becoming the first woman in her family to enrol in university. “Me going to university paved the way for many other women in my family and neighbourhood to pursue higher education, including my sisters, one of whom has become a doctor.”
A fresh approach
She went on to become the principal of a girls’ school, but it was her involvement in a campaign to promote female sexual and reproductive health in schools that would change the course of her life and career. The experience taught her another important lesson – about the need to consider the cultural sensitivities of traditional Yemeni society.
“I found it necessary to adopt a fresh approach,” she said. “Humanitarian action will never succeed if it originates from outside the community. Social change originates from within the community itself.”
While her career progressed to roles in the Ministry of Education, Al-Mashreqi also worked with other volunteers on development projects, with a focus on refugee well-being and providing education for all.
The turning point came shortly after the start of the conflict in 2015 that would eventually force 4.5 million Yemenis to flee their homes and create one of the world’s worst humanitarian emergencies.
“People were already in a difficult situation before the conflict broke out,” she recalled. “Suddenly we lost everything – we lost the essentials of life. During that time, we would go to sleep not knowing if we would wake up alive or not.”
Together with four other women who were her colleagues and students, Al-Mashreqi co-founded the Sustainable Development Foundation (SDF) in 2015. With no other financial assets, the friends sold their gold jewellery to provide the foundation’s initial capital.
Help for refugees and Yemenis affected by conflict
Amal Qaid, a friend and co-founder of SDF, said Al-Mashreqi’s background and own experiences of living through the war meant she understood the need for such an organization. “Asia has lived through the troubles of all Yemenis,” she said. “She doesn’t come from a rich environment, she was raised struggling, so she feels the people’s needs.”
The foundation’s first project involved assisting internally displaced people (IDPs) from Haradh, in the country’s northwest, who had fled to the Red Sea port of Al Hudaydah. Since then, it has helped nearly 2 million refugees and vulnerable Yemenis in the north and south of the country with programmes covering health, education, food security, housing, and livelihoods, including launching 6,000 small businesses, supporting 50 health centres, paving 200 kilometres of road and repairing 100 wells and irrigation canals.
In 2015, the foundation also established the Family Centre in Sana’a – the first child-friendly space for refugees and asylum-seekers which was also open to the community hosting them. It has helped nearly 12,000 refugee children, many of them unaccompanied.
“We have assisted them to leave the Family Centre empowered and prepared to confront life’s challenges,” said Al-Mashreqi, adding that their motto is education and economic empowerment for all those in need.
For her dedication to helping refugees and her fellow Yemenis, Asia Al-Mashreqi has been selected as the 2023 regional winner for the Middle East and North Africa of the UNHCR Nansen Refugee Award.
Paving the way for a brighter future
As a woman leading one of the country’s largest NGOs, Al-Mashreqi has had to navigate recent restrictions on Yemeni female humanitarian workers’ movement in the north of the country. The gender balance among SDF’s workforce has helped to ensure that life-saving assistance continues to reach women and girls among the refugees, asylum-seekers, displaced and vulnerable Yemenis the foundation serves.
“This award to Asia Al-Mashreqi is an inspiration to the whole humanitarian community in Yemen, and a reminder of the value of investing in local actors,” said Maya Ameratunga, UNHCR Representative to Yemen. “She and her team are a valuable reminder that we need gender balance, diversity, and inclusivity among aid workers to be able to reach all segments of the communities we serve, in culturally appropriate ways.”
“We are a team of women who believe that our traditions, values and culture are not obstacles, but rather tools that require more support and advocacy,” said Al-Mashreqi of her approach. “Yemeni society needs role models for people to say: ‘Do it like that woman’."
“At the same time, we have focused on changing societal perceptions of refugees,” she added. “Humans are humans, and we are committed to providing services without any form of discrimination.”
Despite the huge challenges that she and her colleagues are trying to address, Al-Mashreqi is resolute in her belief that the work they are doing – particularly when it comes to educating tomorrow’s leaders – will pave the way for a brighter future.
“Of course, I have hope in Yemen!” she exclaims. “Without it I would not have received this award. I believe that the situation in Yemen will change for the better, and this change will be driven by the youth.”
"Yemeni society needs role models for people to say: ‘Do it like that woman’."