Children affected by the 2011 crisis in Yemen slowly return to normalcy through the classroom
By Sven Simonsen
SANA’A, Yemen, 21 December 2012 – “It was because of the money,” says Hussein*. “I just shot when ordered, and defended myself,” he adds.
“It was the salary, but also because I wanted to be part of the youth movement,” says Anwar.
Hussein and Anwar had been ‘recruited’ into an armed group during the 2011 crisis in Yemen. They were risking their lives for YER1,000 (less than US$5) a day. They risked being told to fire their weapons – and kill.
A school amidst conflict
Al-Thalaya school is in the Al-Hasaba area of Sana’a.
Bullet-pocked buildings testify to the heavy fighting that took place in the area. Nearby is the area known as Change Square, which has been the centre for youth protesters who rose against the regime in early 2011.
The school is overlooked by a military compound. Armed elements are highly visible in the streets and at numerous roadblocks.
Only a few months ago, children at the school witnessed death and destruction in their neighbourhoods. Some, like Hussein and Anwar, were brought into the fighting.
We sit down with Ibrahim, Ismail and three of their Grade 4 classmates and ask how they think last year’s crisis affected them. The boys take turns telling us about things that happened to them.
“One day I went to the grocery shop with a friend, a girl, she was about ten years old,” says Ismail. “A bullet hit her in the head. They took her to the hospital, but she died three days later. We still don’t know who shot her.”
School as safe haven
Today, teachers seek to heal the emotional wounds of children like Hussein, Ahmed, Ibrahim and Ismail. Positive change is already showing. “When we started with drawing classes, many of the children were drawing conflict motifs, planes and guns,” explains assistant teacher Ahmed Al Asri. “But now we see them drawing houses, schools, trees and flowers.”
After the conflict had calmed, the students were no longer the same, explains school principal Ali Saleh. “Many, especially in Grades 1 to 3, were afraid to leave home. The students were no longer interested in studying and learning. They were more aggressive; we could see this in the way the boys were playing in the schoolyard. Even their language had changed – they were calling each other ‘opposition’, ‘gangs’ and so on.”
UNICEF and its local partner Child Protection Initiative targeted Al-Thalaya school for social intervention.
The psychosocial support revolves around the child-friendly spaces model, providing spaces that are safe for children to gather and socialize. Several times a week, the students take time off from regular classes to sing, play, read, draw and play sports. As part of the programme, teachers provide individual attention and counselling to children who show signs of distress.
Participation of parents and communities is also sought in promoting violence prevention and psychosocial support. The school is also making progress in ending corporal punishment of students, which is still very common in Yemen.
Only a month into the psychosocial support programme, it is clear to Mr. Saleh that the activities are making a difference, providing the children with opportunities to build resilience and put painful experiences behind them. “The children are under emotional pressure. We need extra-curricular activities for them to express their views and their fears,” he says.
Facing complex challenges
In Al-Thayala school, and in Al-Hasaba, child protection challenges are complex. Recruitment of children into armed forces and groups has been common. During the 2011 crisis, children were widely seen armed and staffing checkpoints. Others have witnessed death and destruction.
Today, with its psychosocial programme offering recreational activities and follow-up by trained teachers, the school is better able to offer the students an attractive alternative to recruitment, and broader opportunities for the future.
UNICEF’s extensive efforts to end the use and recruitment of children in Yemen include advocacy to develop an action plan with parties recruiting children to end this practice and for the children to be released, reintegrated with their communities and provided with opportunities for development.
*Names have been changed to protect children’s identities.