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Personal Essay on Unicef Yemeni Refugee Camp Experience

I Went to a Yemeni Refugee Camp, and This Is What I Want Everyone to Know

As long as there are borders, there will be wars. That's an idea that has stuck with me since history class in elementary school. As a kid, I had a voracious appetite for ancient history: I took Latin for almost a decade, poured over Old Testament stories with as much delight as I did Greek mythology, and was captivated by my history teacher's description of the Crusades, my young mind already making the correlation between spreading Christianity and spreading democracy. I remember naively saying to my mum, "There's always been war in that part of the world, so there's really nothing we can do." Perhaps that was a premonition of my adult self, mentally exhausted with the news cycle: what can I do? This September, a ninth-grade girl in a refugee camp in Obock, Djibouti, named Rokaya — after being displaced from her home in Yemen — answered that question and taught me so much more.

With so much talk about immigration and international crises — not only in my home country of the United States, but also around the world — I jumped at the chance to travel with Norwegian Airlines and UNICEF as they delivered almost 28 tons of humanitarian aid to Yemen and visited the Markazi refugee camp in Obock, Djibouti. How is it that a tiny nation on the horn of Africa has been able to successfully accommodate thousands of refugees, while wealthy Western nations are still struggling with this?

Current warfare in Yemen, starting with the 2011 revolution against sitting president Ali Abdullah Saleh, has displaced millions of civilians and has left a humanitarian aid blight due to blockades. About 70 percent of the country is in need of aid in some form; Yemen is on the brink of famine, and an outbreak of cholera and acute watery diarrhea have so far affected about 700,000 people across the country. Yet we hear very little about this in the US media. While one can easily say, "Other side of the world, not our problem," Saudi military intervention in the conflict and the US's recent $350 billion arms deal with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia say otherwise. The refugee crisis around the world and the displacement of our fellow human beings for various reasons are everyone's problem.

As an avid traveler, I'm continuously learning. Here are a few things I learned during my time at the Markazi refugee camp in Djibouti.

1. The worst of humanity can lead you to the best.

When you're visiting a place like Markazi, you are immediately confronted with the effects of humanity at its worst: war, conflict, terror. At the same time, I saw humanity at its best: the welcoming, hospitable people of Djibouti and the UNICEF staff. The Markazi refugee camp is home to around 1,500 to 2,400 displaced Yemenis at a given time. The surrounding city of Obock, with an overall population of 21,000 people, is home to 3,050 registered refugees. The government of Djibouti, with the help of international aid, has put a lot of its resources into welcoming its displaced neighbors, though not having much itself. At 23 years old, Asma, the young woman who manages the camp, is a natural-born leader, floating seamlessly between playing with a toddler to discussing housing placement for new families and supplies distribution. Other refugees who had moved out of the camp were regular volunteers as well.

2. No, plane travel is not technically sustainable, but yes it can improve the world.

Sometimes sustainable travel, especially by plane, seems like an oxymoron with the amount of pollution created and jet fuel used. However, with Norwegian Airlines's partnership with UNICEF, the company's ethos, and it's employees, I did really see, again, some of the best of humanity. Our 787 Dreamliner leaving Copenhagen, Denmark, had a major delay due to airspace permissions on the way to Djibouti. Sitting close to Norwegian Airlines founder and CEO Bjørn Kjos, I was privy to his immediate reaction: "They don't realize how many kids they are jeopardizing," he said. The cargo of the plane carried 28 tons of essential medications, water purification tablets, and community kits that were delivered to Djibouti, reaching Aden, Yemen, on Oct. 8. Norwegian partnered with charitable aviation enthusiasts and raised an additional $30,000 for UNICEF with this flight.

UNICEF and Norwegian have conducted three humanitarian aid missions since 2014 to the Central African Republic, to Syrian refugees in Jordan, and to Mali. Between 2007 and 2016, Norwegian contributed to UNICEF interventions about $2.5 million. It also seems to be a trickle-down effect. Yes, Norwegian CEO Bjorn Kjøs is the face of the partnership with UNICEF and has an immense passion for philanthropy that gets him on the ground. But there are also Norwegian employees who have devoted their free time to service. Your steward on your next Norwegian flight might be an international relations major or have worked for an NGO.

3. To a certain extent, childhood innocence can transcend circumstances.

Despite the violence in Yemen, UNICEF is on the ground there, working to respond to the needs of the children throughout the country through services in health, education, child protection, water, sanitation, and hygiene. While in the Markazi camp with UNICEF, we met some of the Yemeni children who lived in the camp while they were in school, in their families' living quarters, or passing time running around with friends. From their giggling smiles and twinkling eyes hiding behind the skirts of their moms to waving goodbye with accented "see yas" and "bye-byes," children, whether refugees in East Africa or in gilded castles, have that same intoxicating joy. Visiting the nursery and school in the refugee camp, it became clear that for many of the younger children, Markazi is all they know. Their points of reference, their schoolmates, and friends — all live like this. It was simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming to know the tremendous power of a loving parent and the semblance of structure provided by the camp to shield a child from these circumstances.

4. There are many preconceived notions about gender roles in the Middle East.

Because the US and many Western nations are secular, we often take conservative gender views for what they are, be it a pocket, a sect, or a community that's norm is "this" but not reflective of our Western society as a whole. Very rarely do we afford countries in the Middle East this luxury of being multifaceted, especially due to stories painted in our news cycle focused on what seem to be the day-to-day horrors of being a woman in many parts of the world. Yes, we hear of The Speed Sisters, the all-female Palestinian race team; or Malala Yousafzai, the young girl who at the age of 15 was shot in the head by the Taliban and went on to become an activist championing women's rights and education. Women like these are painted as admirable exceptions, but not the norm. So what is the norm? I was pleasantly surprised to meet Ibrahim and his fiery daughters. Doing the best he can in the refugee camp, he is raising strong, intelligent young women. His second-eldest daughter's name is Labuwa, Arabic for lioness, a name the family agrees is befitting for her witty, spitfire personality. The older ones aspired to careers like doctors, teachers, and sociologists, with hopes for reuniting with their friends and family in Yemen and attending university in their near future. Thoughtful and articulate, these young women are clearly the lions, not the lambs.

5. Educated? Professional? It could happen to me.

Every story I heard in the refugee camps of the longing for home, of families being torn apart, was incredibly moving and extremely powerful. Perhaps one of the most jarring stories to me was that of a gentleman who I did not know was a refugee. Smartly dressed and fluent in English, I thought he was a volunteer. He was an architect from the Yemeni city of Aden. He fled after bombings and blockades rendered his situation dire and unlivable. His son was still back in Yemen. It was a ghastly reminder that war does not discriminate among casualties.

So what did Rokaya teach me about what we can do? In her own words (translated), this is her message for us, around the world:

"They have to keep talking to the UN and the world to broker a peace agreement between Yemen and Saudi."

"I would like to go home," her sister said.

These young women are imploring us to ask questions, to be informed — from fresh new conflicts to protracted, hard-to-solve crises that have the refugee crisis around the world reaching highs. What is the solution? What are the conditions that require these men, women, and children to return home? Yes, a lot of the narrative has been about welcoming refugees with open arms, but my time in the camp has taught me the powerful impact of "home." Pressure our leaders; the UN has a very active Twitter handle (@UN). Sharing information is the first step. The world news cycle can sometimes cause you to question your bandwidth. For Rokaya and Labuwa, apathy is certainly not the answer.

Image Source: Nneya Richards
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