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Feature: We will never starve in Yemen, say returnees


Feature: We will never starve in Yemen, say returnees

Encouraged by their government's amnesty and driven by unemployment in their host countries, Yemeni refugees in nearby Arab states are approaching the UN refugee agency for help to go home.
9 October 2002
Years after the 1994 conflict, many of Yemen's remaining exiles are going home.

ADEN, Yemen (UNHCR) - Eight years after their government offered amnesty to its opponents, most of Yemen's remaining refugees are coming forward in countries across the Arab world, requesting help to get back to their homeland. Emotional scenes await them when they end their exile.

"My father was crying when he saw me at Aden airport. At that moment I felt the bitterness of being away from one's homeland," says Ali, recalling his recent homecoming from Syria. "We were welcomed by our relatives and friends, and resumed our lives as if nothing had happened."

But a lot has happened in Ali's eight-year exile. Like many Yemeni refugees, Ali is a former military man who fled Yemen after the 1994 war that saw some elements in the south rebel against the Sana'a government. Most sought refuge in nearby countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Syria.

Yemen's government proclaimed an amnesty even while the conflict was still raging. Once the fighting ended, thousands of refugees quickly returned home, but others adopted a "wait and see" attitude and watched from afar.

The cautious refugees enjoyed warm hospitality in their host countries, but economic problems there and the largely successful reintegration of the early returnees back home have helped many of the remaining refugees decide to end their exile.

Of the 764 Yemeni refugees registered with UNHCR's office in Cairo, Egypt, dozens have approached the office for repatriation assistance. Twenty-seven have already gone home in the last few months, with another 105 expected to follow in October. Their flight is financed by Yemen's government or the UN refugee agency. Families that require reintegration assistance receive $150 from UNHCR to re-establish themselves back in Yemen.

Mohamed, a 38-year-old former pilot, has lived in Egypt for seven years. He tried to make a living there, but despite small jobs here and there that did not last more than a few weeks, he could not secure a steady income or a lasting job.

"We lived like beggars in Cairo, but the locals understood our plight and were very tolerant to us," he says. "They were very kind and didn't let us starve; it was very safe. We sometimes received help from Yemeni families here. They were taking care of us, as was my family in Yemen. My father used to send me a little money."

Fellow Yemeni refugee Ibrahim faced similar employment problems. "During my eight years in Egypt, I could not work, even if I wanted to. You don't find jobs easily here. However, I tried and studied computer, but the required qualifications are far too high."

But like Mohamed, Ibrahim has nothing but praise for his Egyptian hosts. "I lived in Cairo as if I were in my own country. People here are every tolerant. For instance, I was unable to pay my rent for up to five months, but the landlord said nothing, he was very understanding."

On his upcoming return to Yemen, Ibrahim says, "I am really very happy. I am looking forward to going home; all my family is waiting for me there. There is no danger now, especially after the amnesty by the Yemeni government. We can go home now."

Mohamed, too, has always dreamed of going home, stopped only by his fear of prosecution in Yemen and the lack of job opportunities there. But setting up a family has helped him decide to apply for voluntary repatriation.

"I am somehow concerned, you know. I have a family and a newborn baby now. I should secure their future. I don't want to have to explain to my children after 10 years why we are living in a foreign country where I could not feed them. It is time to go home," he says with shining eyes.

Fellow Yemeni refugee Fatimah explains her decision to leave Egypt: "Life in Cairo is good and safe, but we have to go. My eldest daughter, 21, couldn't go to school last year, and was not enrolled this year too. So we have to go for their sake and for their future."

Besides Egypt, 540 Yemeni refugees in Syria have repatriated since January this year, including 274 who returned in the first week of August. Some 200 are believed to be still in Syria. These figures do not take into account spontaneous returns that took place without assistance from UNHCR.

Hussein returned from Syria earlier this year. "I regret that I didn't return sooner. I had been thinking for a long time but was afraid. I thought someone might knock on my door in the middle of the night. Nothing happened, and I have not been subjected to any harassment or discrimination."

Socially, the returnees seem to have reintegrated easily. Men and women have been able to resume their lives among their communities, while their children have enjoyed immediate access to schooling.

Work-wise, returnees UNHCR spoke to said they met the Yemeni military attaché in Damascus, who informed them that based on the amnesty and the President's statement, they should get their old jobs back.

All returnees receive the basic salary until their professional status can be settled, upon which they regain their entitled ranks and benefits. Those who reach the retirement age are free to retire, while others are given the option of resuming their jobs or getting a job in the private sector.

In practice, however, it takes a long time to settle the status of the returnees - Hussein returned in January and still receives only the basic salary. Most of the returnees have not regained their former military positions and end up staying home.

But the optimism of homecoming has not diminished, as Abdul, a recent returnee from Egypt, says, "In Yemen, even if you can't find a small job or something to do, you will never starve."

By Assy Girah, UNHCR Cairo
with Aisha Bafaqeeh, UNHCR Aden