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Yemen's new school year kicks off as 6 million children at risk

The new school year started in Yemen's government-held areas on Aug. 15 and in areas held by Houthi rebels Aug. 14, as the UN is saying children's education has become one of the greatest casualties of conflict in the war-torn country.
Yemeni school children sit outside their school on Sept. 29, 2014, in the district of Chamlane in northern Sanaa.

SANAA, Yemen — Due to the lack of teachers and regular classes in his rural school in the Otomah district of Dhamar governorate, Mohammed Qaid decided in 2019 to disrupt his education and travel nearly 100 miles to work in the capital, Sanaa. Since then, the 16-year-old Yemeni has been selling blankets on the sidewalk at al-Hasaba flea market.

“I quit school in the sixth grade to work as a blanket seller,” Qaid told Al-Monitor. “Most of the teaching staff were [often] absent. Those who attended were not good. I was leaving the class as I attended it — without any new information.”

Qaid is one of "over 2 million" school-age children that UNICEF said in early July "are now out of school as poverty, conflict and lack of opportunities disrupt their education." UNICEF added in its report, "For six years on, Yemeni children's education has become one of the greatest casualties of Yemen's devastating and ongoing conflict."

Qaid says his father insists that he study in Sanaa, but he feels "embarrassed to return to study in the sixth grade as a 16-year-old. If I could study in eighth or ninth grade, I can return to school," Qaid added, saying he couldn't study with young boys now that he has become a teenager.

UNICEF said when children are out of school, they "become more vulnerable to being coerced into labor or recruited into the fighting," warning that "the number of children facing education disruption in Yemen could rise to 6 million."

Mahfoudh Ahmed al-Sabri, an 8-year-old Yemeni, has neither a stable school nor home and is based in Sanaa's al-Hasaba zone, an area designated for marginalized people. He lives along with his mother, Rueda Abdo Al-Sabri, and father, Ahmed, who were forced by conflict in 2015 to flee their home on Jabal Sabr mountain in Yemen's Taiz province.

“There is a neighboring school and they could enroll Mahfoudh, but the problem is I can’t provide his school requirements: uniform, books, notebooks, pens and food,” his mother told Al-Monitor. “We can’t afford these. Although my husband works as a goods carrier, he hardly brings in enough to provide us food.”

Reuda, who is a mother to four other children alongside the eldest Mahfoudh, said Mahfoudh is jealous of others going to school. “He watches boys go to school and says ‘Mom, I want to study!’ I tell him this requires money that I don’t have,” Rueda said while holding a baby boy in her lap.

Katharina Ritz, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross' (ICRC) delegation in Yemen, said in a tweet that the conflict has "rendered about 3 million children unable to enroll this year. Yemeni children, like all children, need to go back to school." 

Rueda candidly noted she isn't afraid that Mahfoudh might be vulnerable to recruitment by warring sides in the future. "When they get older, I would love all of my sons to join front lines. I won’t send only one [Mahfoudh].”

Asked whether it would be better for him to be armed with science or firearms, she replied, “The weapon of science is better, so he can be inspired and be a thinker.” Yet she said she doesn't think science is better than the military, adding, "The military is necessary, but first he should know his pros and cons. Studying is the start of a [military] journey.”

UNICEF's report noted that over 3,600 children in Yemen have been recruited in the last six years.

Ali Mutahar, 43, an English teacher in a public school, has also taught at private schools for four years. “Because of salary cuts, I had to look out for my livelihood by teaching at private schools,” Mutahar told Al-Monitor outside his class at Ardh al-Janateen Private School in Sanaa.

Mutahar is one of “two-thirds of the teaching workforce — over 170,000 teachers" that UNICEF said “have not received a regular salary for four years because of the conflict and geopolitical divides.” UNICEF added, This puts around 4 million additional children at risk of disrupted education or dropping out as unpaid teachers quit teaching to find other ways of providing for their families.”

Asked how he left his official job in the Houthi-run Education Ministry, he said, “I tell them ‘taking a life is easier than cutting off a livelihood’ (citing an Arabic proverb),” pointing out that when he told the education authorities he had "nine sons to feed and can’t work with no salary, they understood and allowed me to work in private schools."

Al-Monitor visited four public schools in Shoub district in Sanaa asking if there were any teachers who had quit teaching. We didn’t find any in these schools, but one teacher at Hassan Bin Thabet Harmal School, located adjacent to the headquarters of the Ministry of Education, said last year he went to get married to a second wife without obtaining permission from the school and returned to find that he had been dismissed from his job. “I paid 170,000 riyals [ $280] in fines before I could return to my class."

Riyadh al-Qadhi, an ICRC employee, said he enrolled his 5-year-old daughter Muna at Ardh al-Janateen Private School due to a “lack of care” at public schools and an absence of teachers.

“[I want Muna] to get more care, as you know the care at public schools [is poor]; there are no salaries, [some] teachers are absent and teaching is irregular,” 52-year-old Qadhi told Al-Monitor during a conversation outside his daughter's school.

Muna is among the first from the generation of Yemeni children born to war to enroll at schools; she has never seen peace in her life. Muna was born in October 2015; the conflict broke out in late 2014.

“She is comfortable,” said Qadhi, describing how his daughter Muna feels about studying in school. “I hope she becomes a doctor,” he added, with a big smile.

Qadhi urged parents to enroll their children in schools. “Education plays a vital role in awareness-raising. My message to parents is [to] arm your children with science.”


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