For women detainees in Yemen, having someone to share their concerns, and bring them tidings from the outside world, is a lifeline. It is something that Itidal Abdul Nasser, a YRCS volunteer, has been doing for years. The ICRC’s Jessica Barry listened to her story.
In a land where forgiveness is not easily granted, humanity and compassion still inspire. And it is these values that medical assistant Itidal Abdul Nasser remembers being taught as a child.
“They are values I have always tried to live by,” says the 55 year-old grandmother, who is also a longtime Yemen Red Crescent Society (YRCS) volunteer.
Originally from Aden in what was then the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, Itidal, her husband and three small children fled when armed men entered the hospital where she worked, took the staff captive and held them incommunicado and imprisoned for several days. This was in 1986, during a violent, month-long conflict, that resulted in thousands of casualties and caused tens of thousands of people to leave their homes. "Our lives were in danger, and I was thinking about my children," she recalls. "We left everything behind, our house, our possessions, everything. It took us 15 days walking through the mountains to reach safety."
Today, 27 years on, Itidal lives in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital. She works for the Ministry of Health, teaching vocational skills and training people in first aid. She is still a staunch Red Crescent volunteer.
“Being a volunteer is not easy, but it is in my blood,” she confides.
Between 2001 and 2012, the ICRC supported a vocational training programme for women detainees, teaching literacy and embroidery amongst other skills, which Itidal supervised in her role as a YRCS volunteer. She also brought the women messages from their families, listened to their problems, and organized psychological support for those at risk of committing suicide. She also taught first aid to the prison staff.
“There are many grounds on which a woman may be sent to jail,” she explains. “It may be because of theft or murder, but very often the reason behind a woman’s actions is simple poverty, stemming from a broken home or other cause. But getting outsiders to understand this is hard. Very slowly, by talking to people over the years, I have been able to raise their awareness about the issues involved."
In addition to the Central prison, Sana’a has a deportation centre where detained migrants -- both men and women -- are housed before being deported back to their home countries. ICRC staff, including a doctor, visit the place regularly, providing medical advice, food and hygiene items for the inmates. Itidal plays a key volunteer role organising and supervising the distribution of the supplies. It was also here that she first met Shirin Hanafieh, the ICRC delegate in charge of the migrants' support programme. They have worked closely together ever since.
Watching them sit next to each other for this interview, with Shirin translating Itidal’s words, the empathy between the two women was clear. At one point, Itidal stopped, overcome with emotion. “This is taking me back 20 years,” she said, as Shirin hugged her.
In Itidal’s house in Sana’a, two rooms are kept vacant for female detainees who have no home to go to following their release from jail. “I call it my transit centre,” she says, jokingly. Sometimes a girl will stay for months while she tries to find work and integrates back into society.
Such dedication to others has not come without a cost, however, for Itidal.
“I have had an amazing life,” she remarks. “But sometimes I wake up with a shock and think, what have I done for myself all this time? And then I feel alone in the world.”
“I wish women everywhere a straightforward, decent, honest life,” she says with conviction at the end of the interview. “No matter what problems they face, women have to stay strong.”
It is a creed that Itidal herself lives by, together with the belief in humanity and compassion that was instilled into her as a child. It shines through her, still, whenever she smiles.