Last weekend in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, a devastating explosion by Arab coalition fighter jets killed 69 people and wounded 250, according to recent reports by Aljazeera. The United Nations estimates that more than 150,000 people have been displaced and over 750 have lost their lives. About 25 million Yemeni citizens have endured shortages of food, water, medicine and electricity as a result of a naval, air and land blockade. And to add more to the chaos, both ISIS and Al Qaeda have taken advantage of the growing instability in order to claim unprecedented territory.
For our Partners Yemen colleagues it wasn’t too long ago when youth from our “Strengthening the Role of Youth in Cross-Tribal Conflict Mitigation Program” were actively contributing as mediators in their communities. Amir, a youth participant in the program caught the attention of the trainers as one of the least active members of the group. A troubled youth, Amir was distant and hesitant about the program. But taking into account his past, this distance was justified.
Amir joins thousands of youth in unemployment in Yemen and the Middle East. Educated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, he and others like him sit idly with nowhere to turn for employment and a future. Nowhere, but Al-Qaeda.
“Three of my high school classmates joined Al-Qaeda and are now dead…
They were desperately hopeless about their future,” Amir said.
Fortunately, Partners for Democratic Change (Partners) and Partners Yemen were there to offer him and other youth with another choice and most importantly hope, hope for their future and for the future of Yemen. With the support of the Berghof Foundation, the program was able to mediate youth peer-to-peer conflicts; train young people to resolve and prevent conflict; and ultimately prepare youth to advocate for their social causes to influence district councils and tribal leadership.
As a young Peace Ambassador, Amir and his young colleagues developed critical leadership skills and were encouraged to fully realize the impact of conflict in their communities. These young Peace Ambassadors shared the outcomes of their local facilitated discussions with neighboring districts and gathered additional perspectives, which they subsequently shared with their local leaders.
Amir was a shining example of the impact youth can have in their communities. Over time he began joining the discussions and voluntarily taking leadership roles in the youth council. He has resolved conflicts in his neighborhood, built great connections with social figures and utilized his skills for the youth council’s benefit by arranging a meeting with the Mosque Imam and neighborhood leaders.
Yet, one of the most notable displays of courage and leadership was when in late September of 2014, his community witnessed a major sit-in demonstration where demonstrators demanded secession in the Khormakser district of Aden. Tens of thousands of large tents were set up, representing youth from various regions of Southern Yemen. Amir, now the president of the youth council, along with 18 additional youth from his neighborhood decided to create a technical supervisory committee to monitor the square and resolve conflicts amongst youth, protestors and residents. As a committee, volunteers made sure that the tents were neatly built on the sidewalk and didn’t block the road. The youth council even purchased traffic safety vests to stand out from the crowd using their own money.
But soon after, protesters tried to seize the local Army Base, which led to clashes between the army and protestors. As a result, two people were killed and dozens injured. Following the clashes, Amir and the youth volunteers created a human barrier by linking arm-in-arm in front of the military base, post office and other government faculties to protect protesters from clashing with security forces. Many protesters called Amir and his fellow volunteers “traitors” for preventing the demonstration from escalating to violence and gaining momentum. But Amir and his fellow volunteers just did not see the point of violence. “I want to protect as many lives as possible,” Amir repeatedly said.
As Amir admirably displayed his leadership, young women also arose to the call of action to serve their communities, as empowering young women was also a big component of the initiative. Nisma, one of the young women from the youth council has continued to display her commitment to her community by volunteering at the local hospital as a nurse. Her accounts of the day-by-day horrors and the severity of the humanitarian crisis, depict a chilling account of the world in which these young people currently live. “The situation is insane,” she accounts.
Both Partners and Partners Yemen are proud to see the continued commitment of these young people to their communities, especially as they attempt to give a voice about the dire conditions during this difficult time. Even during this crisis in Yemen, young people need to be engaged and shown how they can act as catalysts for positive change. To be these catalysts, young Yemenis must continue to be supported in playing a role in shaping Yemen. Now more than ever, they need us to help them develop the decision-making capabilities to become strong, proactive leaders. It is clear that Yemeni youth have been increasingly alienated and disenfranchised as violence engulfs their daily lives and there are few outlets for their vaulting energy and pent-up frustrations.
Young Yemenis have great potential to lead the future of their country and cannot be forgotten by their international colleagues when times get really hard. When the dust settles and the cries are hushed, and when the tremor of bombs are muted, then we will see again the rebuilding of Yemen by these great young leaders. When that time comes, both Partners and Partners Yemen will be ready to help them lead again.