Yemen: 'women and girls started to disappear'
15 September 2015

Young refugees spend time at the Jesuit Refugee Service Refugee Community Centre in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia where they can take classes, study in the library, or receive emergency assistance (Angela Wells/Jesuit Refugee Service).
"I wasn't happy to take this journey. I was so sad...My life was there and I left it all behind."

Addis Ababa, 15 September 2015 – At 28 years old, Safia was living a lifestyle any young professional hopes to attain. After completing dentistry school in Yemen she opened up her own clinic, bought a car, and spent her weekends volunteering with disadvantaged communities, including refugees and migrants from Ethiopia and Somalia

"My friends and I volunteered with refugees for eight years. We helped all humans without distinction. This experience changed my life. When they needed me I knew I must help them with anything I have. 

"I was a single girl, living my life. Never did I think I myself would become a refugee," she said. 

In a matter of months, the life she worked so hard to create for herself was upended when rebels gained control of her hometown, Sana'a. In mid-June, she fled with her sister. 

"I had no choice. I could not stay. The Houthi rebels controlled the roadblocks. They wouldn't let me drive and forced me to wear a niqab. They took away all my freedoms.  

"They think that women are objects, like a chair or a window. Women and girls started to disappear. I found out one man wanted to take me as his sex slave and maid. I found him watching me and I could see desire in his eyes." 

In the past few months, airstrikes and home attacks have become rampant due to ongoing conflict in Sana'a. According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), 100,000 Yemenis have fled since late March – the majority to the horn of Africa.  

Safia left so suddenly that her journey felt like a dream, she says. 

She and her sister, one year older than her, left Sana'a for the nearest port wearing one backpack each filled with some biscuits and four pairs of clothes, including her favourite headscarf. From there, they each paid $300 to board a boat to Djibouti alongside more than 100 others. After four days of their journey on the sea, they travelled two more days on road to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 

"I wasn't prepared to leave Yemen at all. We left quickly and I didn't have the chance to take my degree or certificates with me," she says. "I never thought I'd get to Addis. I thought I'd die in the sea. I was so lucky that I survived, but now I have nothing." 

"I wasn't happy to take this journey. I was so sad...My life was there and I left it all behind." 

After registering with UNHCR, she joined the 6,000 other urban refugees registered in Addis Ababa 

The majority of refugees in Ethiopia live in camps designated for refugees of specific nationalities. However, no camp has been established for the recent influx of Yemenis. So asylum seekers must integrate into the urban capital, find work in the informal labour market, or rely on support from relatives abroad to survive in the expensive city.

Jesuit Refugee Service gives food and other support to new arrivals. "We provide emergency assistance for undocumented refugees and new arrivals. We are the only NGO providing assistance to those not yet registered with UNHCR," said Hanna Petros, JRS Addis Ababa project director. At the Jesuit Refugee Service Refugee Community Centre in Addis Ababa, young refugees can also play sports, take English or music classes, study in the library or use the computer centre. 

While Safia came to Ethiopia with a background in dentistry, she is unable to use these skills in Addis Ababa due to strict work restrictions. The degree she worked so hard for but left on her clinic wall is now useless. 

Safia and her sister are currently surviving through the good will of an Ethiopian merchant she met in Yemen. He houses them in his home, but she is afraid this hospitality will not last for much longer. 

"Many Ethiopians struggle to survive themselves. He is kind to us but I know they don't have a lot of money. They don't understand why we aren't working or why we can't pay rent. One day soon they will probably ask us to leave." 

Safia doesn't know what will come next. "I only think of today," she said, "When I close my eyes I can't see tomorrow. I just want to look back and return to my old life - even though I know the most important thing is my safety, my freedom." 

Angela Wells, JRS Eastern Africa communications officer 

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