Yemen: Aid groups tackle rising drug use among young people

15 April, 2014
Aden, Yemen: A community mobilizer with the Danish Refugee Council talks with young people about the dangers of drug abuse. Credit: OCHA
Aden, Yemen: A community mobilizer with the Danish Refugee Council talks with young people about the dangers of drug abuse. Credit: OCHA

Drug abuse by young people is a growing problem in Yemen. With a US$100,000 grant from the Emergency Response Fund (ERF), a Danish Refugee Council (DRC) project is reducing the incidence of drug use among young people in the southern Yemeni governorate of Aden.

Twenty-year-old Ali enrolled in the Faculty of Engineering at Aden University in 2012. But by then he was already using illicit drugs, having picked up the habit from high-school friends. “I was curious,” he said. “I wanted to experiment with (amphetamine) pills, but I was not aware that they could affect my health and lead to addiction.”

Ali loved the kick he got from the drugs, especially when combined with qat—a mild narcotic herb that is chewed by over 80 per cent of men and 25 per cent of women in Yemen. But Ali soon developed difficulties. “I could not concentrate and became very aggressive,” he explained. “I tried to quit, but could not for one-and-a-half years.”

One day he met a former drug user who was working with DRC. This man convinced Ali to visit the project office. “He told me that I could get psychosocial support and treatment, and that I could freely recover from addiction in a very confidential environment,” Ali said.

“It was true. Today, I am clean and focusing on my studies and want to graduate with a first-class degree.”

Using drugs to mask the pain

Unlike Ali, 18-year-old Mohammed’s decision to start using drugs was born out of a car accident that left him with disabled limbs. Three years ago, he quit school. Soon after, his friends encouraged him to try some pills which, they claimed, would make him feel better about himself and his disability. Starting with one pill a day, he quickly graduated to three.

“My behaviour changed,” Mohammed said. “I became very aggressive and lazy. I spent most of my time sleeping or chewing qat on the pavement with my friends. Problems developed between me and my family.”

Like Ali, Mohammed’s life started to turn around following a chance meeting with a DRC community mobilizer.

“He told me they aim to raise the awareness of youth in Aden about the harmful effects of drugs and other dangerous behaviour,” Mohammed said. “I visited the project office. My life has since improved in many ways. My family has rewarded me with a phone. I have taken an oath never to return to drugs again. Now I am looking for a job.”

Ali and Mohammed live in a city that hosts refugees, migrants and other conflict-affected groups. In 2012, a large number of the 169,000 people who abandon their homes due to armed conflict sought refuge in Aden, including school children.

Drug use a growing problem in Yemen

Qat is the most common narcotic in Yemen, but younger people are now consuming stronger, more addictive drugs such as hashish, cocaine and amphetamine pills. Data on the extent of the problem across Yemen is scarce. But according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, about 12 per cent of illicit drug users develop drug dependency and become “problem” drug users.

Most problem drug users are young—aged between 18 and 25. According to DRC, many young people in Aden are out of school and unemployed, and they are more likely to adopt risky behaviours, including drug abuse and unsafe sexual behaviours. The rise in drug abuse has caused an increase in violence and crime, while many youths are contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

The ERF in Yemen

The DRC project targets 1,500 vulnerable men and 500 vulnerable women aged between 15 and 24 with information on the risks of drug use. The project provides treatment and support to 600 young drug users and people engaged in risky behaviour.

DRC started working in Yemen in 2008 and has since expanded to eight governorates. Its project in Aben is supported by the ERF—an OCHA-managed fund that provides humanitarian organizations with rapid, flexible funding to address critical gaps in humanitarian emergencies or to support local NGO capacity-building.

“Supporting life-saving programmes is a key ERF activity,” said Trond Jensen, Head of OCHA Yemen. “In Amran Governorate, where conflict recently flared up, the ERF approved $1.35 million for national organizations to assist 137,000 displaced people and host communities. We are grateful to our donors who strongly support the fund.”

Since the start of this year, the ERF in Yemen has provided $4.8 million in funding for 15 projects. The majority of this money has supported international NGOs, such as DRC, as well as local Yemeni organizations.

* Ali and Mohammed’s real names have been changed to protect their identity.

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