How Yemen’s teachers are being forced into extreme poverty
With salaries cut by up to half, many teachers take on extra jobs outside their teaching hours, in efforts to make ends meet
Many people in Yemen are facing a dire situation. Teachers, like many other workers in the country, have been pushed into extreme poverty, which has displaced many or forced them to take up other professions to make ends meet for both themselves and their families.
With the advent of the holy month of Ramadan, the cost of living for families increases with extra expenses such as Iftar meals. But this year, Ramadan comes amid a severe humanitarian and economic crisis, which was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as cuts on aids by NGOs who were providing support for those in need, due to the dwindling volume of international aid to the country.
Forty-six-year-old Sana* , wakes up early while fasting, to graze livestock. She is neither a shepherd nor a farmer. Sana has been a public school teacher in Dhamar, south of capital city Sana’a since 1996. She took on extra work with livestock in addition to teaching, so that she could provide for her family.
She told openDemocracy that her teaching salary was not even covering the cost of transportation or a meal.
The situation started deteriorating when the salaries of public employees, teachers included, were cut following the Huthi’s takeover of Sana’a in 2015 and the decision to move the government and central bank to the southern port city of Aden in September 2016.
This move led to a decrease in the currency exchange rate. Today one USD is worth 600 Yemeni Riyals of the northern currency used in the Huthi territories, compared to 250 previously. In addition to this, Sanaa’s government pays only half a salary to public sector workers whenever possible.
Juggling two jobs
Sana had to buy and raise animals to make ends meet. “A year ago, I thought to buy livestock and keep them at a neighbor’s place to take care of them, so that in the future we can share the profit equally. But time passed and the neighbors refused to take them, so I had to care for, clean and graze them myself. And their number gradually increased,” she explains.
“Breeding and grazing stock is not an easy task, but it is still much better than teaching since there are no salaries amid the present difficult financial situation. What helped me through this was need, patience and my love for animals,” she adds.
But she also needs to keep her teaching position since the government forces teachers to attend otherwise they would lose their jobs. She explained: “I keep attending so I don’t lose my job, just in case one day the situation is better and life gets back to normal”. Addressing the government she adds, “have mercy on us and pay us our salary to spare us this disarray”.
Sana is planning to sell her stock in the summer to earn money for her family.
Sana describes the situation this year as much more difficult than the previous one, “In the last couple of years, the situation was better during Ramadan, thanks to the UNICEF benefits we received. It helped us pay for Ramadan supplies and buy the Eid clothes… but this year, these aids were discontinued, which put us in an ordeal.”
Over the past couple of years, UNICEF paid monthly incentives to teachers and school workers in Yemen after providing 70 million USD for this purpose.
Teachers received 250 USD each during Ramadan last year. This helped many to buy their Ramadan supplies and pay off their debts after three years without full salaries.
Sana adds, “With God’s help, we were able to get all our supplies for Ramadan this year thanks to financial assistance from our relatives, plus my half salary and my husband’s…. Ramadan is the month of generosity after all.”
Salem* , also works in education, he used to be a teacher at Al Hudaydah University west of Sanaa. But unlike Sana, he decided to leave his job and move to the capital during Ramadan 2018, fleeing the war and the difficult living situation, in hope of finding a better job.
Salem was surprised, like many others who were also displaced, by the difficult living situation in Sana’a. “As a displacement area, the city is safe. But it is destructive on the psychological level due to the bad living situation,” he told openDemocracy.
Many workers are forced to work despite their salary cuts since 2015.
The 45-year-old academic explains, “When I left Al Hudaydah, I thought I would find a job in Sana’a and be at ease, but the salaries are cut. Even merchants who are still working and making profit are complaining about the situation, so what can we do?”
Salem was surprised by how overcrowded the capital was, due to the number of displaced people fleeing the war or looking for better living opportunities. The Supreme Council For The Management And Coordination Of Humanitarian Affairs report stated that Sana’a shelters around 208,000 displaced persons.
Worst humanitarian crisis
With Ramadan and the increase in family expenses, many are resorting to debt especially because of the aid cuts.
Salem used to receive financial aid from DKH, a German Organization that offers support through the Young Leadership Development civil society organization to the displaced. The project offered cheques and cleaning supplies to face COVID-19, but the programme ended and the support stopped three months ago.
“We used to receive 70 USD. It helped us cover many expenses, but its discontinuation affected our Ramadan this year”, explained Salem.
According to UNHCR, the country’s humanitarian crisis is the worst globally. More than 80% of the population need some form of assistance, 14 million people need urgent humanitarian intervention. The World Food Programme said that more than 20 million people in Yemen face hunger in view of the absence of food assistance.
“We are grateful for the aid provided by the organizations, but we prefer to have jobs and provide for ourselves. All we need is for our salaries to be restored and our lives to be back to what they used to be, to get back to our jobs.”
While waiting for this day, Salem is living off loans, which he is paying off with the aid he receives from his brother working in Saudi Arabia or the pay he receives every now and then when he finds a freelancing job.
Salem pays 100USD per month in rent for his three-bedroom apartment, which is in a popular area of the capital’s outskirts. Finding an apartment was not easy. He was living with one of his brothers in Sana’a and moved out as soon as he found a place of his own for his family.
Many landlords request a deposit and six months in advance. Salem, like many others in the city, does not have this amount due to his situation and the country’s economic crisis. “I had to borrow the six months’ advance so that I could move in. The rent is too high for such an apartment, but some of my friends are paying 200USD per month for unlivable apartments,” explained Salem.
Housing is not the only cost that has increased. Due to the country’s crisis, many workers in the education sector, like Salem and Sana, had to leave their jobs and look for other work. This led to the deterioration of public education, and many parents are now trying to send their children to private schools to provide them with better opportunities. Salem, who has four children, some of whom attend public schools, explains that this incurs additional fees and expenses.
While some NGO assistance has stopped, community-based initiatives have emerged to provide for the poor and those in need who have lost support.
With the increase in poverty and displacement in the past few years, young people have launched new initiatives to distribute food baskets or open charitable restaurants, when these restaurants were usually associated with well-off families or elderly philanthropists.
Five years ago, such initiatives started spreading widely during Ramadan in a show of social solidarity. Humane Touch is one such initiative. “This is the fourth year of the Ramadan Charity Kitchen. We are not alone, several initiatives joined us. Usually, we distribute food baskets, but since the funds are scarce this year, we created one joint charity restaurant”, explains Yasmine Naqib, who is leading the initiative.
These projects are often self-supported by the team members, or by wealthy people or local residents who give what they can to buy supplies and ingredients for the meals prepared collectively in the kitchen.
This year, the health situation added a new challenge to the humanitarian and financial crisis. Some kitchens, including Human Touch, Bassmet Amal, Baladi Ahla, Rawdat Al Hanane, Kon Khayr Lil Ghayr and I can, had to join forces to save on costs. They are working together in one kitchen producing 500 meals per day.
Human Touch distributes meals in neighborhoods where they have volunteers. Sometimes, they distribute up to 70 meals to one area or neighborhood, in addition to 300 shares of dates and water distributed daily all over the capital. “The volunteers distribute the meals according to the need in their neighborhoods while taking all the precautionary measures against COVID-19”, says Naqib.
The month of generosity
Souhourak Alayna is another initiative that provides Suhour, the dawn meal people have before they start their daily fasting. “I thought of the children of families in need, because they do not have anything to eat in the morning. Usually these families survive on the Iftar meal alone, the evening meal that breaks the daily fast”, says 25-year-old Ebtihal Taha, the project’s coordinator.
In 2019, the UN’s World Food Programme warned that around 20 million people in Yemen would have to reduce the size of meals or skip some altogether due to low food stock.
Ebtihal said that she chooses to help families in need living near her area because they barely make one dollar per day. Some of these families’ children work in harvesting Khat or collecting plastic containers. Taha also provides help to teachers suffering from the severe living crisis that Sana talked about.
As for financing, Ebtihal relies on her Facebook followers, friends and philanthropists, who contribute in small amounts. She tells openDemocracy that she is very happy for the spread of her idea in other areas, saying that two of her followers implemented a similar initiative in their own neighborhoods.
Ebtihal is still a university student, but she uses her Facebook page to participate in and manage charity projects to support those in need.
With the worsening humanitarian, financial, health and political crisis in Yemen, Ramadan uncovers the generosity and charity and the resilience of local communities struggling to have a better life.
*Names have been changed
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