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The Struggle For Education in Yemen Finds Hope in a Bakery

An unspoken casualty of war, education or rather the lack thereof could quite literally push Yemen into the abyss of radicalism.

Presenting the Global Humanitarian Overview for 2019, Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock for the UN and its partner organizations made clear this December that war-torn Yemen now figures as one of “the most vulnerable countries with food, shelter, healthcare, emergency education, protection and other basic assistance in 2019.”

“Yemen will face the worst crisis of all with 24 million people, 75 percent of the population, in need of humanitarian assistance,” stressed Lowcock.

While Yemen has yet to break through mainstream media as far as coverage of the war goes, few remain under any illusion that the military campaign Saudi Arabia is waging against the impoverished nation is anything but the enactment of a grand war crime, if not a crime against humanity. And though, undoubtedly, all parties must bear responsibility in the litany of injustices that have befallen civilians, the ferocity and Saudi Arabia’s overwhelming firepower have in no uncertain terms put the burden of guilt on the kingdom and its ruling elite, namely Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a man whose penchant for blood and revenge are now common knowledge following Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

If Yemen is indeed hurting far beyond what anyone could expect any one nation to endure, famine, displacement through bombing, poisoning of wells and water irrigation systems, the targeting of hospitals, schools, warehouses, bridges, cemeteries and places of worship, cholera, dengue fever, Yemen has also proven to be not only resilient in its desire to survive the war, but also socially active in its commitment to secure its youth a future worth defending.

Education Lost to a War

Amid so many ruins, among the ashes of what was once the Republic of Yemen, activists have rallied around what they feel is the cornerstone of any potent democracy: education. An unspoken casualty of war, education or rather the lack thereof could quite literally push Yemen into the abyss of radicalism, whether political or religious.

In September 2018 the United Nations announced that with 80 percent of all Yemeni children being now dependent upon humanitarian aid to survive, education did not even figure as a viable feasibility. Worse still, the UN children’s fund says the education sector is on the brink of collapse because of conflict, political divisions and chronic underdevelopment.

UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac said around two million children are not going to school this year. Furthermore, he said nearly four million primary school children soon may not be able to get an education because of a severe shortage of teachers. “About 67 percent of public school teachers—and this is across the country—have not been paid for nearly two years. Many have looked for other work to survive or are only teaching a few subjects. So, obviously, the quality of education is at stake. Children are not getting their full lessons due to the absence of their teachers. Even when schools are functioning, the schools’ days and years are shortened.”

Also, Yemen suffers from a shortage of learning facilities because of Saudi Arabia’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian infrastructures.

In 2016 the Independent reported on Riyadh’s threats to the UN should its name be tainted by accusations of wrongdoing in Yemen. The report read:  The United Nations Secretary-General excised the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen from an annual UN register of children’s rights violators, after the Middle-Eastern country and its coalition partners threatened to cut off crucial funding to the world body.”

More recently such rebuttal to any and all objective criticism manifested in further threats, mainly in reference to calls for action over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether through economic sanctions, political pressure or repeating false accusations,” a report read in October following a promise by US President Donald Trump that “severe punishment” would befall the kingdom.

And: “The kingdom also affirms that if it is [targeted by] any action, it will respond with greater action.”

Oblivious to international law, Saudi Arabia wants to sit not only as an absolutist theocracy, but an exceptional one at that.

It is against such overwhelming odds that Yemenis are forging ahead. With so very few schools left standing, UNICEF reported in 2018 that more than 2,500 schools have been damaged or destroyed by the war, notwithstanding the many schools that are now used as shelters for displaced people, and Yemen is struggling.

mena media MENA Yemen FINAL 28 3 2016

The agency has warned that children who are out of school run many dangers, for example, boys are at risk of being used as child soldiers while girls are likely to be married off at an early age. Considering the fact that three-quarters of the women in Yemen have been married before the age of 18, and 44.5 percent before the age of 15, the issue of education is a serious one indeed.

Many activists in Yemen have, in fact, argued that the issue, should it be left unaddressed, would tear at the very fabric of society and condemn millions to a life filled with trauma, abject poverty and overall hopelessness. In such a vacuum it is likely Wahhabi-inspired radicals would find yet another recruiting pool.

As Eden Charles, Deputy Permanent Representative of Trinidad and Tobago to the United Nations, noted in November 2016 before the United Nations General Assembly: “The appeal of terrorism must therefore be reduced by addressing the socioeconomic challenges and pressures present in vulnerable societies.”

Acutely aware of the dangers looming over their future, Yemenis are making a stand; away from war, violence and senseless revenge, their ambition is to provide both teachers and students a safe place to grow and learn. If the project is in itself ambitious, it is also courageous. Many powers would like nothing better but to see all such efforts fail to the dynamics of war, rather than offer hope of a better future.

Finding Hope in a Bakery

The Foundation for Knowledge and Social Advancement based in Sana’a (capital of Yemen), a charity run and established by Seyed Hassan al Emad, a well-known advocate for peace, opened up a bakery in 2016 with the sole purpose of providing bread to both teachers and students, so that none would go hungry. As of right now the bakery provides bread for 3300 people across the capital every day and serves six schools. 

school yemen

Students and teachers waiting for their bread ration, Sana’a 2018. Courtesy of The Foundation for Knowledge and Social Advancement

Limited funds have meant that only a fraction of people in need have benefited from such aid. While limited in its reach, the formula is a powerful one.

Hundreds of teachers and students are being fed every day under the Bread 4 Education project.


Bakery in Yemen under Bread 4 Education Project, Sana’a 2018. Courtesy of The Foundation for Knowledge and Social Advancement

Speaking exclusively to Citizen Truth, Seyed Hassan al Emad explained: “Teachers have gone above and beyond the call of duty to offer our youth the education they so desperately deserve and need…, but they are themselves on the verge of famine, and so we had to step in and find a workable solution. So far, we can only offer bread…; hopefully, soon we will create a better structure and offer teachers and students more than the very basics. We believe education to be the cornerstone of democracy; we will do all we can to save our schools.”

With no salaries to rely upon for well over a year due to a complete meltdown of the state institutions, teachers have found in the program a veritable life-line.

As 2018 comes to a bleak conclusion in so many places, hope flickers still, however thick the darkness.


Catherine Perez-Shakdam

Catherine is a Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a former consultant to the UN Security Council on Yemen. Her work has been published in the Times of Israel, the Jerusalem Post, the Daily Express, Epoch Times and countless other media.

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